Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guest Post: Driving Down Borel Avenue

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst

   Some of the greatest pro athletes over the years have taken a small, seemingly insignificant morsel of space and made it their own. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky made some of the greatest plays ever seen from his "office"--that approximately five foot space between the rear of the opponent's goal and the end boards. The NBA's all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored many of his 38,387 points almost at will, using his patented, ambidextrous sky-hook within the confines of a small slice of hardwood in the low post. Former Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Franco Harris led his team to four Super Bowl Championships running almost exclusively into that small gap between the tackles.
   Similarly, jockey Calvin Borel (Bo-rail to Churchill regulars) has for quite some time now been racking up wins at Churchill Downs by staying down on the rail with many of his mounts. Now there is every other rider's idea of the rail and then there is Calvin's version. Calvin's rail is more like the shoulder of the road, a very narrow country road, and quite literally only perhaps a few inches from the anodized aluminum inner rail.
   The footing on Calvin Avenue is virgin, unbroken or chewed up by numerous aluminum-plated hooves, unlike the often-traveled ground only a few feet to the outside of Mr. Borel's groove. Calvin Ave. is faster, but not for the faint-hearted. When horse and rider are that tight to the inside rail, there really is nowhere to go should any unfortunate circumstance occur in front of them. Of course that hardly concerns Calvin, who grew up riding on some of the roughest ovals known to man on the Louisiana bush track circuit.
   One would think that any rider able to win three of the last five runnings of the Kentucky Derby might be in very high demand as that first Saturday in May nears but, amazingly enough, that is not the case. Apparently this high-energy, Cajun package is not everyone's cup of tea. The man, after all, never even completed eighth grade. He is not well spoken or articulate. He seems awkward, almost uncomfortable in a room full of people.
   So just what exactly does Calvin bring to the table? Borel is a jockey who knows every foot of the Churchill Downs dirt surface like it was his own private putting green. A rider who, on Derby day, relies on street smarts rather than the kind one learns through high school and into college. A rider who has come to understand the often unreasonable pace of the world's most famous horse race and how many lengths can be made up by a legitimate stretch-runner in that testing final three furlongs. Boo-Boo, as the Borel clan calls him, brings a palpable, youthful exuberance to every Derby runner lucky enough to have him fiddling with their mane in the Derby post parade.
   For all the unbridled, delirious celebrating that takes place after Borel has guided yet another Derby winner to victory, the man is quite the opposite before the contest. From the time Calvin exits the jocks room until the assistant starter leads his mount into their assigned stall in the starting gate, the Borel face remains expressionless, only a steely stare suggesting the enormous amount of concentration.
   While the Castellanos, Gomezes and Velazquezes of the jockey set must mull over which one of the two or three offered mounts they will choose to ride on Derby day, Borel has no such luxury. Sometimes Calvin tends to come up with his Derby winners in unconventional ways.
   As the 2010 Derby approached, both of the Todd Pletcher "go to" riders were engaged to their respective mounts; Velazquez to Eskendereya and Gomez to Lookin at Lucky. With those two riders already spoken for, the mount on Super Saver was offered up to Borel for the Arkansas Derby as he had won the Kentucky Jockey Club S. on the WinStar colt as a juvenile. Derby favorite Eskendereya, of course, was withdrawn from the Derby due to injury only one day prior to entries, leaving Pletcher mainstay John Velazquez without a ride for the race. Calvin, as everyone knows, made the most of this improbable opportunity on Super Saver, giving both Todd Pletcher and WinStar Farm their first Kentucky Derby success.
Borel               Horsephotos
   The previous year, a virtual unknown little gelding exiting a minor stakes race in New Mexico was about to embark on a painfully long trailer ride to Louisville, Kentucky. With no "name" rider's agent even giving this gelding a second look, trainer Benny Woolley, Jr. reached out to the local guy. As Calvin had no previous commitment, he of course accepted the mount on the almost impossible longshot named Mine That Bird, and the rest, as they say, is history.
   This year, Calvin will team with former Churchill conditioner Pat Byrne and an A.P. Indy colt named Take Charge Indy. In two starts this year, perhaps by design, the colt seems to have developed into more of a free-running sort than Calvin is used to. Still, the partnership seems to be working just fine as they will enter the Derby off a very decent, front-running win in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, defeating probable Derby favorite Union Rags.
   Somewhere around 5:30 pm on Saturday, May 5, in the cramped jockey quarters at Churchill Downs, 20 of the best riders in America will be giving the past performances one last look before donning their respective Derby silks. Some will in fact be more talented riders than the wiry, wide-eyed Cajun affectionately known as Bo-rail. None, however, will give their mounts any greater chance at that blanket of roses than him.

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