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The “Inside” Scoop: Why Calvin Borel Owns the Rail

Calvin Borel rode 50-1 Mine That Bird to a win in the 2009 Kentucky Derby on the rail. (Eclipse Sportswire)

You would think that in the mind-boggling melee that is the rush down off the far turn at Churchill Downs, someone in the Kentucky Derby still might have managed to keep Calvin Borel off the rail. That mixed into the madness of slapping whips, hollering voices and roar of the Saturday crowd there could have come a random shout: “Hey, Mike! Move over two inches so he won’t get through!”

Heck, back in the jockeys’ room before the race, you’d figure at least three or four of the guys would have put their heads together to devise a simple plan on the order of: “Now you stay in the one path, and I’ll take the three path, and David will be in the two path, and Joe will be in the four path, and he’ll have to go five wide!”

Then meaningful glances might have been exchanged on the walk down to the paddock as the rail-skimming wonder trotted purposefully toward his date with destiny.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice …

Make that three times, Derby riders!

Read it and weep. Three times, Borel has taken the same path to victory, slipping onto that golden conveyor belt on the inside part of the track, the shortest route to the roses. Have his mounts been the greatest? Absolutely not. Of the victorious trio, only his first Derby winner, Street Sense in 2007, went on to win even a single race again.

It could be argued with great conviction that both following runners — 2009 winner Mine That Bird and 2010 winner Super Saver — were moved up by a muddy track and by Borel’s sly tactics while other, better horses (like last year’s eventual 3-year-old champ, Lookin at Lucky) suffered horrendous trips that severely compromised their chances.

The question of why other riders did not take a similar route to victory was answered succinctly by Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey during last year’s ESPN broadcast: “Because you can get killed doing that.” He speaks the truth; riders may get stopped on the rail, boxed in, shuffled back, or hung up, but Borel slips by like silk through the eye of a needle.

How does he do it?

“A hole to Calvin is different than a hole to a lot of different riders,” Bailey said. “If he can get his neck in there, he thinks it’s a big enough hole. Most riders would at least want to make sure their horse’s body would fit through. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to pull the trigger and go through those places.”

“A hole to Calvin is different than a hole to a lot of different riders.”Borel, 44, will ride Twice the Appeal in this year’s edition of the Run for the Roses. His career spans 25 years, and he’s been dashing through tight spots since he was a kid on the Louisiana bush tracks, where his older brother, trainer Cecil Borel, taught him the valuable lesson about how much shorter a trip was on the inside of a circle. It happened one night at Delta Downs after the younger Borel came off the rail and cost his brother’s runner the race.

“I’d been riding officially for about half a year and rode like six horses for him one night, and we won five races,” the jockey recalled. “The one in the last got beat because I went to go around two horses and the rail opened up. When I got back, he told me, especially with his horses, ‘Stay on the fence!’ And I learned from that.”

Shane Borel, the rider’s nephew (who works as a valet and exercises horses), has watched his uncle ride the rail to victory on thousands of occasions. He believes the foundation for that confidence comes in the mornings, when Borel sends potential mounts through their training paces.

“He’s out there every day, getting a feel for the track, and the horses he breezes in the mornings he rides right up against the rail, and they get accustomed to being there,” he said. “It makes the horses feel comfortable on the inside, and it’s probably a confidence booster for Calvin as well because he knows the horse is comfortable there. The confidence that he can relate to the horse while they’re running is key.”

According to Borel, horses don’t mind running through narrow spaces on the rail as much as people would assume.

“I learned that through the years,” he said. “A horse will run between the fence and another horse a lot easier than he’ll run between two horses. He’ll always hesitate between two horses, but if you try to put him through a space between the rail and another horse, it’s amazing; it’s like a guide. If he can get his neck in, the rest of his body will follow, especially beside the rail. I wouldn’t put my horse in that position between horses, because you could clip heels and stuff, but when you put him by the rail, a horse will go through there a lot easier.”

Yet, what of the other riders? Haven’t they discovered this tactic by now? You know, the one that earned him the nickname “Bo-rail”?

Fellow Cajun Robby Albarado said every rider knows where Borel will be, but in recent editions of the Derby, none thought he would factor into the finish.

“Say he’s on the favorite,” Albarado said. “We all know where he’s at, and we’re going to protect the rail as much as possible. But with Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot, no one thought he had a chance. We weren’t waiting for Calvin to come riding on by. We don’t worry about horses that don’t have a chance. It also works a lot for him because there’s no way, if you’re making your move on a horse turning for home, that you’re going to stay on top of the fence. If you’re riding a horse already, he’ll jump to his right lead and take a step out, and all the sudden the rail opens up, and Calvin’s always sitting in the pocket there, waiting.”

Borel also has something of a home track advantage at Churchill Downs. Now a Louisville resident, he rides here every spring and fall and has topped the standings as leading rider four times (the fall meet in 1998, 2007, 2009; the spring meet in 2010). He is only the second jockey in history after Pat Day to ride more than 1,000 winners here (overall, he has won 4,838 races), and the Louisville oval’s long stretch is one of his favorite places in the world.

“I love that stretch because you can sit and wait, sit and wait, and if you get stopped, you still have enough time to get out and make a run,” he said. “Not every track’s like that, but Louisiana Downs, where I rode during the early part of my career, is the same kind of track. Pole to pole, everything’s almost exactly the same, and that helped me in my early years coming to Churchill to ride.”

Calvin Borel (Eclipse Sportswire)

Shane Borel agreed.

“He used to do this at Louisiana Downs, too,” he said. “The angles and the points and being in the right position when it’s time to get inside and move your horse through, he just knows all that. And if the horse wants to go, he’ll do it and go.”

Grinning cleverly, Borel said the chaos of the Derby’s 20-horse field has granted him priceless anonymity in his bid for the rail.

“When there’s 20, you’ve gotta focus on yourself because you can’t ride two or three different horses in the race; you’ll get yourself in trouble,” he said. “If there are just four or five horses, yes, they can ride to prevent a horse from winning or to try and put you in a spot. It’s a lot harder to get through in a smaller field, to tell you the truth, and you really don’t even need to try to get through sometimes; it’s kind of pointless. But with 20, you try to save as much ground as you can.”

Borel then shrugged his shoulders and issued a modest smile.

“It’s kind of blown out of proportion, to be honest,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve got the horse, and I put them on the right spot and it helps them out.”

Simple as that. Except he’s the only one who appears to know just how to do it.

“You have to give the guy a lot of credit,” Bailey said. “He set those horses up perfectly to win. Mine That Bird wasn’t going to get it if he went even two wide, and Super Saver really was the same way. If he’d chosen to go two or three wide, I don’t think he’d have those other trophies. You haven’t seen anybody in history be able to accomplish that in the premiere race in the country. It’s pretty unique. He takes that home-track advantage to the extreme.”

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I’ve read many articles about “Bo-rail” but this explains what he does the best.

Posted by Lois on April 28, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

wonderful article Submit it quickly for national publication! Keep
up the great work; the sport(and business) needs this kind of journalism
as exhibited in KC

Posted by Greg Mendel on April 30, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

Author PhotoA Chicago native, Claire Novak is the winner of the 2011 Media Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary and has written on racing for some of the nation’s best-known outlets, including ESPN The Magazine and, the Associated Press, and NBC Sports. She is a former staff writer and current correspondent for The Blood-Horse Magazine, and is also a guest correspondent for Lady Luck on TVG. Visit her website or follow Novak on Twitter. More by  ›