Rex Nelson: Arkansas Derby Draws Calvin Borel Aboard Texas Bling

As the start of the 2013 racing season at Oaklawn Park neared, the Calvin Borel watch began in Hot Springs.

By the third day of the year, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau had announced that it would print trading cards bearing Borel’s photo and then distribute them at the track on the afternoon of his 5,000th victory.

“We’ve done a series of these trading cards beginning in 2001 shortly after President Clinton left office,” the bureau’s Steve Arrison said at the time. “They have been among the most successful marketing items we’ve ever done with hundreds of thousands distributed free around the globe. When Calvin rides his 5,000th victory, we’ll give out free cards at Oaklawn that day. … His historic 5,000th should come fairly quickly when Oaklawn opens its 2013 live race meet on Jan. 11.”

There was no way for Arrison or anyone else to know just how long the wait would be.

Borel had picked up his 4,999th victory at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in late December. Coming into the 2013 Oaklawn meet, he had ridden in 6,365 races at Hot Springs with 899 wins, 817 places and 709 shows, along with $20,395,809 in earnings. He had won 46 stakes races at Oaklawn, including 12 graded stakes, and was the track’s leading rider in 1995 and 2001.

His biggest wins at Oaklawn included:

  • The 1993 Arkansas Derby aboard Rockamundo
  • The 1995 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap aboard Hot Jaws
  • The 2000 Oaklawn Handicap aboard K One King
  • The 1997 Apple Blossom Handicap aboard Halo America
  • The 2001 Apple Blossom Handicap aboard Gourmet Girl
  • The 2009 Fantasy Stakes aboard the legendary Rachel Alexandra (the filly he would ride to victory in the Preakness Stakes that year)

However, a broken wrist kept Borel sidelined until late February. It wasn’t until early March when he rode Hezunusal to victory that Borel got No. 5,000. He became one of 25 riders to ever win that many races. Borel also had won his 3,000th and 4,000th races at Oaklawn.

“When I started, I didn’t even dream of riding 5,000 races, let alone winning 5,000 races,” Borel said. “I’m really happy I got this at Oaklawn. It’s one of my favorite tracks.”

On Saturday, as the 2013 Oaklawn meet draws to a close, Borel will be on Texas Bling in the Arkansas Derby.

“My gosh, he had an impressive work,” trainer Danele Durham said last week after the horse went five furlongs in 1:01.60 in a morning workout. “It was awesome. Calvin said he was so impressed with his stride. He said that he worked better today than he worked last week. He said he was excited about riding him.”

Owned by the Hall Family Trust, Texas Bling finished fourth in the Grade 2 Rebel states at Oaklawn. Borel is replacing jockey Cliff Berry for the Arkansas Derby.

“Calvin really fits this horse,” Durham said. “He keeps him really collected and gets his hind end into action. The two of them look like the real deal. … I really like the way he relaxes for Calvin, and I really think they’re the perfect match. The connection between the horse and rider is so important, and the horse picks up on Calvin’s confidence.”

One thing is certain. A lot of the money bet on Texas Bling on Saturday will have nothing to do with the horse. It will have everything to do with the way Arkansans feel about Calvin Borel, a 2011 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Borel became a national celebrity – even appearing on the late-night network talk shows – when he won the Kentucky Derby three times in a four-year period. He won aboard Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010. His story was compelling, and his enthusiasm for the sport was contagious.

When Borel steered Street Sense to a thrilling come-from-behind Kentucky Derby win, Pat Forde wrote this for “Calvin Borel is famous for hugging the rail, getting the race horses he rides all the way to the inside and almost skimming the paint as he goes. ‘It’s the shortest way around the racetrack,’ said the simple man from southern Louisiana.

“But Borel’s journey from the bush tracks of his Cajun childhood to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May was no rail trip. It was filled with bumps and detours and a lifetime of hard work. It was one long, grinding tour of the glamourless side of racing.

“The big races and the best horses were the domain of other jockeys – guys who reported to the track at midday and waited for the high-priced stakes to roll around. Calvin Borel, winner of zero Triple Crown races before Saturday, was the guy you could count on seeing before dawn every morning. He was the guy riding cheap horses in the morning workouts, then riding a lot of other cheap horses in the afternoon races.”

It’s important to understand, though, that long before Calvin Borel rode a Kentucky Derby winner, he had become a star at Oaklawn.

It was Borel who ended Pat Day’s reign of 12 consecutive riding titles in 1995.

It was Borel who rode the greatest long shot in Arkansas Derby history when he guided the 100-1 nobody named Rockamundo to victory in 1993.

It was Borel who was the leading Oaklawn rider again in 2001 and has won each of Oaklawn’s five top races in the Racing Festival of the South.

Borel has been a frequent rider at Oaklawn for more than two decades and is another in a long line of talented jockeys to have come from south Louisiana. Known for his ebullient personality, his emotional reactions to stakes victories and his work ethic, Borel began racing horses on small tracks near his hometown of Catahoula, La.

“He has been a major contributor to racing in Arkansas,” says Terry Wallace, the former track announcer at Oaklawn and himself an Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “While he has attained national stature, he hasn’t forgotten his roots, practicing his riding profession at Oaklawn on an annual basis.”

Borel began riding match races when he was only 8 in the same part of Louisiana that produced jockeys such as Kent Desormeaux and Randy Romero. His older brother, Cecil, was a jockey for a brief time but later became a trainer at Delta Downs in Vinton, La. Calvin Borel would, in turn, become a regular rider at Delta Downs. He would help his brother by cleaning stalls, galloping horses and performing other duties from before dawn until late in the afternoon.

“We lacked a lot of education,” Cecil once said. “But we didn’t lack no work.”

Their father had raised sugar cane, an arduous profession.

“When the family wasn’t working in the fields, they went to the match races at the bush tracks that have been the cradle of so many great Louisiana jockeys,” Forde wrote. “Calvin was one of them. The races were a million miles from the dream world (of winning the Kentucky Derby). Maybe 100 people would gather around a cow pasture and bet on the horses, many of which were ridden by young boys like Borel. They used to tie chickens to the tails of some horses to make them run faster. At the end of the quarter horse races, the riders wouldn’t even attempt to pull up their mounts; they’d just jump off. The bush tracks of yore have faded away now, but that was where Borel learned his chops.”

Borel’s first Kentucky Derby victory in 2007 came after guiding Street Sense to a two-and-a-quarter-length win over Hard Spun.

“Borel authored a classic rail trip to bring Street Sense from 19th after half a mile to third, neatly knifing underneath the field heading into the Churchill Downs stretch,” Forde wrote that afternoon. “The only time he veered Street Sense away from the fence was to pass tiring horses and take dead aim on leader Hard Spun, whereupon he wheeled three wide around the pacesetter in the stretch.”

Borel earlier had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the most important race for 2-year-olds, aboard Street Sense. The colt would become the first to win both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby. Street Sense also was the first U.S. 2-year-old champion to win the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Street Sense headed to Baltimore as a favorite in the Preakness Stakes but was nosed out by Arkansas Derby winner Curlin, an eventual two-time Horse of the Year. A month after winning the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Borel became only the sixth jockey in Churchill Downs history to win six races on a single card.

Borel won the Kentucky Derby again in 2009, this time aboard 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird. He had captured the prestigious Kentucky Oaks the previous day on Rachel Alexandra. When he won the Preakness Stakes aboard Rachel Alexandra two weeks later, Borel became the first jockey to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown while riding different horses.

In 2010, Borel rode Super Saver to a Kentucky Derby win, making him the first jockey to win the event three times in a four-year span.

“Calvin Borel has only a nodding acquaintance with the King’s English,” Bill Dwyre wrote after the 2010 Kentucky Derby in the Los Angeles Times. “His dentist can get him in and out in 15 minutes. Don’t ask him about Shakespeare because he’ll want to know which race he’s in. But come the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, nobody speaks more clearly, looks better, nor is smarter. Put him on your horse and raise the mint juleps in victory. … It is well known that his nickname is Calvin Bo-Rail, signifying his tendency to keep his horse on the inside, and wait and wait until a hole opens for a dash to the finish. What isn’t well known, nor the least bit understood, is how 19 other jockeys, all veterans, can allow the rail to keep opening up for the man who is named for it.”

The other jockeys in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby are advised not to leave room along the rail. Borel is a legitimate star and only the third jockey – after Larry Snyder in 1987 and Pat Day in 1999 – to have been inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Visiting with Borel, though, you would never know he’s one of the sport’s superstars.

Cecil Borel once explained it this way: “We’re just country boys. He has paid his dues.”

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