Never-give-up relationship keeps Borel, trusted agent Hissam among racing's best

awincze@herald-leader.comApril 26, 2014 


Jockey Calvin Borel, left, and agent Jerry Hissam have been friends and business partners since 1991. Not even Hissam's pancreatitis last year could break their bond.


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LOUISVILLE — Every major moment of Calvin Borel's career rests on the tip of Jerry Hissam's tongue, coiled and ready to spring forth with minimal prompting and zero hesitation.

It is the job of a jockey agent, after all, to promote his rider to interested parties. So while the perpetually humble Borel isn't one to lead with the statistics that gained the affable reinsman induction into Racing's Hall of Fame last summer, his 69-year-old friend, agent and oft-proclaimed second father can recite the horses Borel beat when he earned his first Grade I win in the 1991 Louisiana Super Derby (Best Pal, Lite Light), his career victories to date (5,057), and details of his three Kentucky Derby victories like verses from a favorite tome.

Hissam has spent 23 years looking out for Borel's best interest. It is a job he has done admirably again heading into the first leg of the Triple Crown, securing Borel the mount on Arkansas Derby runner-up Ride On Curlin for Saturday's Kentucky Derby as well as the ride on Grade III winner Sugar Shock in the Kentucky Oaks one day earlier.

Such long-term commitment between jockey and agent is rare amongst the fickle blood that runs throughout the Thoroughbred racing community. Which is why even as Hissam lay in Mercy Hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., last March unsure if his jockey would get to see him alive again, another drastic measure would be needed to get Borel to start moving forward without him — albeit temporarily.

"That's one thing about me and Jerry," Borel said as he sat outside the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association office on the Churchill Downs backstretch Tuesday. "We don't give up. Every day, every day, every day."

That mutual dedication was much of the reason why Hissam announced he was retiring as Borel's agent last April, officially handing his rider's book over to the venerable Doc Danner while he battled the effects of pancreatitis that resulted from complications from gall bladder surgery.

To see Hissam ambling around the backstretch now, robust in girth and full of jovial charm, it makes his rally from where he was a year ago rival Borel's rail-skimming masterpiece of a ride aboard Street Sense in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. After nine days in Mercy Hospital, Hissam was airlifted to Baylor Dallas Hospital in Texas where he would spend another 13 days before being released to months of living on milkshakes, Boost and Ensure while his body healed from the ravages of infection.

Hissam's recovery was not even close to a sure thing. "I found out later they had me probably gone about twice," the native of Chester, W.Va., deadpanned. Borel, however, was willing to wait it out and have faith.

Thus, as he's been doing for more than two decades, Hissam made what he believed to be the best call when his jockey is facing a quandary.

"He didn't want to find another agent," Hissam said of Borel. "The doctors didn't know how long it would be (for recovery) and he kept saying 'I'll wait' and ... I finally told my wife 'I'm going to announce my retirement and that will make him go out.' We talked and he ended up getting Doc Danner to work for him. When he found out I was officially OK, he called me in October and asked me to come back to work.

"He was willing to stand by me and we've been together 23 years now," Hissam continued. "It's been just a great relationship and as you've already seen this year, I don't know if it's his luck, my luck or the good Lord looks after us but we've already picked up Oaks and Derby mounts that are live."

On July 1 of last year, Hissam ate a scrambled egg, the first solid food he'd had since December.

It was also the first step toward getting back to being at Borel's side for the game-changing moments.

A mutual trust

In March 1991, Borel had won only two races during the Oaklawn meet when Hissam — who had previously approached the jockey about taking his book — inquired again if the Cajun-born pilot was finally ready for a change.

"We went from there to Louisiana Downs, became leading rider that year, and won the $1 million Louisiana Super Derby," Hissam recalled. "And we just really have been very fortunate together. He lets me do my job and I let him do his job. For all these years, we've never had two cross words."

Next to his brother Cecil and his wife, Lisa, it is Hissam who bears the brunt of Borel's trust. And it goes beyond the obvious achievements of having mounts like 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and 2009 Derby hero Mine That Bird on Borel's résumé.

The caveat for jockeys is that the day never comes when they can stop trying to prove themselves. In the midst of that dangerous whirlwind, having a shield both emotionally and professionally is a godsend.

"Jerry knows what I like and he kind of takes care of me. He's more than an agent to me," Borel said. "He knows where I want to be, how I want to be, if I don't want to be messed with before the races, the night before races, all this public stuff. He doesn't get upset with me, I don't get upset with him.

"I tell young riders, you will be on top today and the bottom tomorrow. It's a humble game but I work hard and ... if people see your face, they're going to throw you a bone sooner or later. And I think that's how we got to be where we are."

The day the Hall of Fame class of 2013 was inducted at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., last August was a jubilant, tear-stained blur for Borel — in good measure because of the sight that came through the doors of the Hall that morning.

"When Jerry called me he said, 'I'll be there,' and I said to my wife, 'No way,'" Borel said. "But he showed up and he looked so much better. I'll never forget that day."

"When he won the Super Derby in 1991, I never felt something like that in my life," Hissam said. "When he won the Woodward with Rachel Alexandra I felt it again and when he went into the Hall of Fame that day, it was the same kind of electricity. You don't think a boy out of Catahoula, Louisiana, would end up in the Hall of Fame."

Borel had his Hall of Fame plaque forever bearing his name and a couple months later, a fully-healed Hissam was en route from Arkansas to Kentucky to resume his duties of the past 20 odd years.

As is often the case in sports, the pinnacle comes with a short shelf life.

'Poor man's jockey'

On Oct. 23, three days after Hissam returned to the job, Borel suffered a broken fibula after being thrown from his mount in a race at Keeneland, an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of 2013.

Even the immortalized aren't immune to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect jockeys face when injured. Thankfully for Borel, his longtime association with trainer Bill Gowan laid some key groundwork for what may transpire on Derby Day as he had ridden a powder keg of a bay named Ride On Curlin for Gowan in three of the colt's first six starts.

"I felt like things kind of got away from us for about 4-5 months," Borel said. "Without Jerry and then me getting hurt, people didn't see my face like they should and I believe you have to show up, let them see your face. So it kind of got away. And now since about the middle of Oaklawn it started every day, getting better horses and now it's starting to pick up."

Borel was at the helm of Ride On Curlin when he broke his maiden by 73/4 lengths at Ellis Park last July, setting a track record for 51/2 furlongs. Afterward, owner Daniel Dougherty received and turned down a seven-figure offer for the colt, but it turned out to be Ride On Curlin's last win until Borel guided him to an allowance victory going 6 furlongs at Oaklawn on Jan. 12.

After Ride On Curlin ran third in the Grade III Southwest Stakes, Borel switched off the colt to ride Street Strategy in the Grade II Rebel Stakes, finishing sixth as Ride On Curlin was beaten just a length by race winner Hoppertunity.

When Ride On Curlin solidified his Kentucky Derby status with a runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby under veteran jockey Jon Court, Hissam and Borel were pleasantly surprised to hear the door was open for the Hall of Famer to get the mount back for the first Saturday in May.

"I've known him for 30 years so I knew him before he won any Derby," Gowan joked of Borel. "He's probably won more races for me than any jockey that I've ever used so I had to go with my man."

Hissam affectionately calls Borel "the poor man's jockey," a nod to his rider's blue-collar roots and work ethic. Having won classics for elite outfits like WinStar Farm, Stonestreet Farm and six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, there is extra satisfaction now from being in position to give Gowan and his three-horse stable the same national spotlight Borel and Hissam have relentlessly carved out for one another.

"When you're on top of the world, everybody wants you. And when they think you're not on top of the world, nobody knows you," Hissam said. "But we were very fortunate to have two opportunities this year going into these two days. I really hope we can win the race for Billy."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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