LOUISVILLE — The minute Calvin Borel was hoisted into Mine That Bird's saddle Monday morning, everyone watching couldn't help but notice the difference.
Within moments, the smallish bay gelding was practically bounding his way to and from the Churchill Downs track, and the arch in his neck could have made one think he was preparing for a dressage test rather than a 4-furlong workout.
"When Calvin gets on him he knows it's different," trainer Chip Woolley said. "When he goes off with Calvin, he goes with his neck bowed and is ready to go do his thing."
Indeed, if confidence truly is contagious, the reigning Kentucky Derby winner and his affable jockey both appear to have a healthy case at the moment.
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The only thing more assertive than Mine That Bird's attitude Monday were the statements made by Borel shortly after guiding the Derby winner through a 4-furlong move in 50 seconds flat.
With a broad grin on his face, Borel channeled his inner Joe Namath and predicted a victory this Saturday in the 141st running of the Belmont Stakes.
"He's perfect. We're going to win, no questions asked," Borel said. "I love the way he went, he did it just like before the Derby, did everything the same exact way.
"When they run those two races there (the Derby and Preakness), they don't usually prance like that. He's bouncing right now, he's happy."
Though Borel's guarantee might come off as cocksure to some, recent weeks have proven when the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning rider has a good feeling about something, it's best to just go with it.
Even after guiding Mine That Bird to his Derby triumph, Borel insisted his star filly Rachel Alexandra was the best sophomore in the country — a claim that was strengthened when she and Borel defeated Mine That Bird and the rest of her male rivals in the Preakness Stakes two weeks after her record-setting 201/4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks.
With Rachel Alexandra sitting the Belmont out, Borel is back on Mine That Bird with a chance to become the first jockey to sweep the Triple Crown riding two horses.
But as storybook as his Triple Crown run has been to this point, Borel's everyday exploits have been equally as successful.
At 42 years old, Borel is arguably riding the best he has in his life. He's fifth in the nation this year in earnings with $5,031,156 and second in the Churchill standings with 35 wins through May 31.
"He's in a zone, and I've always been a big Calvin fan," said Buff Bradley, trainer of veteran Grade I winner Brass Hat, whom Borel recently guided to victory in the Grade III Louisville Handicap. "He's a go-to guy because I know he tries every time. It doesn't matter whether it's a $5,000 horse or a million-dollar race.
"Calvin knows horses well. He can get off a horse and tell you something, but he's always very positive. He can tell you a lot about a horse, and I think that's a big plus."
After years of being known for his blue-collar diligence at the track, Borel is showcasing his charming demeanor for a even larger audience.
The Louisiana native appeared on The Tonight Show after his Derby win and is slated to tape The Late Show with David Letterman on Tuesday — prior to ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.
"First of all he works so hard. Any rider that is willing to work that hard ought to be successful if they have the talent he's got," Woolley said of Borel. "People are comfortable with Calvin because of his dedication and his no-fear attitude with riding. If there's a spot to go through, he'll drive up in there, and he's not going to give you half a ride. I think that's a big reason he keeps moving forward."
Just as Borel has taken off during the last five weeks, Mine That Bird appears to be following his rider's lead.
The gelded son of Birdstone shows none of the wear and tear often brought on by the Triple Crown, as shown by the way he practically trotted through the shedrow moments after completing his final pre-Belmont work.
"He's getting better," Borel said of Mine That Bird. "I think he was kind of heartbroken before when he was getting beat, this horse.
"With winning the Derby and the way he ran last time, I think, you know, it builds his confidence and it helps the horse. That's what I love about him."