BY JIM WELLS
Calvin Borel stands squarely on the threshold of racing history approaching Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
No rider has won all three races of the Triple Crown on different horses, and Borel has the mount on the morning line favorite for the Belmont having already ridden the winners of the first two races.
Borel rode 50-1 outsider Mine That Bird to a stunning last-to-first Kentucky Derby victory, winning by 6 3/4 lengths. One day earlier, he rode the magnificent filly Rachel Alexandra to a commanding victory in the Kentucky Oaks. He chose to ride her in the Preakness Stakes, and held off Mine That Bird by a diminishing length for the win.
Mine That Bird soared past 18 Kentucky Derby rivals in an electrifying 21 seconds in a race regarded by many analysts as a fluke, yet the Derby winner demonstrated two weeks later that there was nothing fluky about it. With another 25 yards of racetrack, he would have caught Rachel in Baltimore.
With Rachel Alexandra sitting out the Belmont, Borel will be back aboard Mine That Bird on Saturday. He’ll have the bettors’ backing and the support of riders across the country.
Borel is a down-home Louisiana boy who rides regularly at Churchill Downs and is one of the most liked riders in the jockeys room. Mine That Bird’s trainer, Chip Woolley, who has hobbled around on crutches (he suffered a broken leg in a motorcycle accident) since he arrived at Churchill Downs after hauling the Derby winner in a trailer, has plenty of support himself.
“You have to root for Borel and Woolley. They remind you of most of the trainers and riders you’ll meet at Canterbury,” said longtime handicapper and horse player Phil Marudas. “I don’t think Mine That Bird will win and I won’t bet on him. But I’ll be happy for them if he wins. You have to like those guys.”
Borel, who came to national attention and success at 40 years of age, is viewed as a down-to-earth, hard-working rider who deserves his time in the sunshine.
“Calvin’s a good guy. He deserves to win,” said Canterbury rider Paul Nolan. “What you see is what you get with him. He’s a very hard worker without the big ego.”
Nolan is convinced that Borel’s enthusiastic, emotional responses to winning the Kentucky Derby in 2007 and again this year have been good for the sport. “He’s helped bring a lot of people into racing, and that’s what matters,” Nolan added.
Canterbury’s defending riding champ Derek Bell is in Borel’s corner as well. “I’d like to see Calvin win naturally,” Bell said. “He’s a heck of a nice guy and he deserves this. With all that happened, he’s pretty lucky to get back on this horse.”
Not much has changed about Borel in Bell’s estimation, except the horses he’s been riding, Derby winner Street Sense in 2007 and now Mine That Bird and Racel Alexandra.
“He’s always been a great rider and is finally getting the mounts he needs to get recognized.”
Bell has ridden with Borel a number of times and, like most of his colleagues, likes the man for his humility and pleasant nature. “He’s a great guy and a lot of fun,” said Bell.
Ry Eikleberry, who won the quarter horse riding title in Shakopee last summer and won the thoroughbred title at Turf Paradise in Phoenix this spring, is pulling for Borel and Mine That Bird as well.
“That horse really impressed me after winning the Kentucky Derby with a race everybody called a fluke,” said Eikleberry. “He was flying late in the Preakness and I was hoping he would win. They all come from a blue collar background. His trainer hauls him around in a trailer and that reminds me of stuff I did growing up with my dad. Those guys come from roots like we do.”
The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont does not typically set up well for closers such as Mine That Bird.
“Closers year in and year out don’t win this race,” said Marudas, “and he (Mine That Bird) has had two tough races. Dunkirk is rested and there are other good horses in there, too. It’s going to be an interesting race, but I think things are against (Mine That Bird).”
Bell sees a different scenario.
“I think Mine That Bird is getting better every start, and the farther the race the better with him. He looks like a cinch to win.”
Borel has guaranteed that his horse will win the race, a prediction, Nolan says, that puts him in a category with quarterback Joe Namath, who brashly predicted his New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. “Guaranteeing a horse to win is a hard thing to do in a $5,000 claiming race much less the Belmont,” Nolan said. “But if he does, he’ll be racing’s Namath and he’ll become the first jockey with all those women.”