Kentucky Derby

Jockey Calvin Borel owns the rail

Super Saver and Calvin Borel gave WinStar Farm its first Kentucky Derby victory in May. He'll stand at WinStar in 2011.
Super Saver and Calvin Borel gave WinStar Farm its first Kentucky Derby victory in May. He'll stand at WinStar in 2011.

LOUISVILLE — There are times, Calvin Borel says, when even the person who understands him more than anyone can't help but question why the veteran jockey insists on putting himself in situations others in his sport rarely try.

"She always asks me, 'Why do you do that, why do you go through those holes?' " Borel said of his wife, Lisa.

As he demonstrated once again in the Kentucky Derby, the answer to why Borel maintains his rail-skimming, daredevil routine on the racetrack is really quite simple.

Even though virtually all his peers know exactly what Borel's game plan is, it doesn't mean they've been able to stop it.

Long before he earned his third Derby win in four years and became Thoroughbred racing's media darling, Borel's reputation for taking the shortest route possible around the track was one of the best known on the nation's backstretches.

After his latest fence-hugging ride aboard Derby winner Super Saver, many have wondered why more jockeys don't emulate the technique that has made Borel the king of Churchill Downs and the winner of three of the last four Triple Crown races.

As the man nicknamed "Bo-rail" will attest, getting a horse to scrape the paint isn't as easy as he makes it look.

Other riders might track the inside path a foot or so out, but Borel has mastered the unique art — especially at Churchill — of putting himself and his mount inches away from the rail.

"There's on the fence, and there's on the fence," Borel said at Churchill Downs on Wednesday. "You know, to me, if you can get right on it, there is traction there. But if you get a half a horse off of it, (the traction) is good and bad, and then they'll start bobbling, and people don't realize that.

"I've just been fortunate enough to have the good horses. That's another thing; you need the horse to put you there. If you don't have the horse, you're not going to get there."

While not every horse has the disposition to handle the tight quarters Borel prefers, what separates the Louisiana native from some of his fellow riders is his ability to wait for openings and transfer his laid-back nature through the reins.

"A lot of guys, they try it, but they can't do it because Calvin's got it mastered where he can get a horse to relax," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. "He's got really great hands, and he's got a skill to get a horse on the rail without bumping into a lot. Plus, he's fearless. He's the only one who will do it."

It might be his preferred style, but Borel doesn't just blindly throw a horse into a spot it's not ready for.

Even at the age of 43, Borel regularly shows up to the track at 5 a.m. to work horses for his would-be clients. He often uses his morning sessions to feel out whether his potential mounts are comfortable with life on the fence or whether he needs to map out a different scheme for them in the afternoon.

"If you try to make them do something they don't want to do, I think you mess them up," said Borel, who is the regular rider for reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. "Especially going into the turn, they'll jump off of it sometimes, and you know then, don't put them in that spot."

As much as Borel's confidence allows him to maintain his fearless style, those closest to him point out that he didn't come to his famed technique overnight.

"He's done it all his life; he's ridden the rail all his life so it's like a natural instinct for him," said trainer Carl Nafzger, who conditioned champion Street Sense, on whom Borel earned his first Derby win in 2007. "It's not something you try to do for one race or one out of 30 races.

"I always say I can teach a lot of people to train horses, but it's hard to teach someone the horse. And Calvin Borel is a horseman."

Few riders have dominated a specific track the way Borel does Churchill. Yet he still faces questions about how well his skills translate outside of the Midwest circuit.

Borel successfully guided Rachel Alexandra to her historic Preakness Stakes victory at Pimlico last year out of post-position No. 13. But he did face criticism for possibly moving too soon over the massive 11/2-mile Belmont Park oval when he rode 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird to a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

"I don't think there is any question he is at his best at Churchill, but I don't think that takes away from his capabilities anywhere else," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Super Saver. "This guy shows up every time, he brings his A game every time. That's why he's as good as he is."