Calvin Borel makes his living riding the rail. It’s the shortest way around a racetrack, yet few jockeys are as comfortable down there as he is.
Of course, the rail doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a horse good enough underneath you. Borel certainly did in the Kentucky Derby, guiding Super Saver on the short path in the slop to a 21/2-length victory, his third in four years.
Borel won his first Derby in 2007 with a rail-hugging ride aboard favorite Street Sense, and his second with 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird last year in a muddy dash from last to first along the rail.
This year wasn’t as dramatic, since Super Saver was never worse than sixth in the 11/4-mile race. But Borel did it in his trademark style – keeping close to the rail and swinging outside just once to pass Conveyance before zooming right back inside.
“He doesn’t run in the one hole, he runs in the half-hole,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “He could paint the fence while he’s going.”
Actually, Borel said, Super Saver wasn’t that close.
“Now Mine That Bird might have scraped the fence,” he said. “He was all right. I had plenty of room.”
Borel isn’t expected to deviate from his famed style when he rides Super Saver in the Preakness on May 15, aiming for a victory that would set them up for a Triple Crown attempt.
“He has the talent to do it,” Borel said about a Triple Crown sweep. “It’s hard to say you’re going to win it, but he’s peaking at the right time.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been burned by “Bo-rail” before. He thought he had his fourth Derby victory in the bag last year, but Borel came zooming up the rail – a path Baffert calls the Borel Trail – on Mine That Bird to overtake front-running Pioneerof the Nile.
“He knows if he gets on top of the rail, it’s a big advantage,” Baffert said. “Lots of guys try it, but they can’t do it. He’s got it mastered. He can get a horse to relax. He’s got really great hands.”
Borel has enjoyed his greatest success at Churchill Downs, a track similar to Louisiana Downs, where the Cajun honed his riding skills and learned to take the shortest way around the track.
He even hugs the rail in the mornings when he’s exercising horses.
“I love to ride the fence,” he said. “You can’t be scared. If I can’t do it my way and get the job done, that’s when I’m going to retire.”
As much as Borel loves it down low, some horses dislike the rail, forcing him out a length or even as far as the middle of the track. Others, though, prefer running with the rail on one side, where another horse can’t come up inside them and they won’t get bumped.
“In a race, you’ve got to learn how to put one down there,” Borel’s agent, Jerry Hissam, said. “Most of these horses, when you turn for home, they’re starting to drift, they’re starting to get tired. You’ve got to know how to put them down in there and keep them down in there. And why can’t anybody else do it? I don’t know.”
Dale Romans, who trains third-place Derby finisher Paddy O’Prado, attributes Borel’s inside success to having the patience to wait for an opening.
“If you get left (behind), you have to use your head. Don’t rush him up, put him in a bad spot because you’re asking for trouble,” Borel said. “If you’re on the best horse, let him take you there.”
Rachel Alexandra took Borel to the Preakness winner’s circle last year, when he switched off Mine That Bird to ride the filly, who started from the No. 13 post. This time, Borel is sticking with the horse that got him to Pimlico for the 13/16-mile race.
“I’ve got total confidence he’ll be able to handle Pimlico,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Super Saver.
Lukas believes Borel’s success is more about confidence than fearlessness.
“When he gets a horse that will cooperate, he really does it,” the trainer said. “His confidence level is way up right now and so he’s trying things that normally he might not even try.”
Borel’s tactics don’t fool anyone – not his fellow jockeys nor the betting public. But no one has tried to stop him yet.
“We all know what he’s going to do,” said Robby Albarado, who finished 14th in the Derby. “He just does it anyway.”
The inside path isn’t always open to Borel.
“He’s got shut off before. They got out in front of him sometimes,” Hissam said. “A lot of times it’s because he doesn’t have the right horse to get to that spot. The hole is going faster than he is.”
Borel is keeping tabs on Super Saver at Churchill Downs, where the colt is training for the Preakness and is scheduled to arrive at Pimlico on Wednesday, three days before the race.
Super Saver had a light schedule before the Derby, with just two races in which he finished third and second. His freshness could work in his favor during the grueling five-week Triple Crown campaign.
Only 11 horses have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, with Affirmed the last to do so in 1978.