- Jeremy Plonk, Horse
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Approximately 164 miles separate Belmont Park and the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. But jockey Calvin Borel can make the trip in merely a mile and a half Saturday when he partners with Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes. The lovable Cajun can state a pretty strong case for Hall enshrinement with a victory in the final jewel, which would give him an unprecedented Triple Crown sweep by a jockey on two or more horses.
No doubt, a single season rarely makes a career Hall of Fame-worthy; just consider baseball slugger Roger Maris. Despite 61 home runs in 1961, Hall voters still have not seen fit to overlook Maris' .260 career batting average and fact that he averaged less than 20 long balls a year over his 14-year tour of duty.
But consider, regarding Borel, that only 22 jockeys before him had won multiple Kentucky Derby renewals. Of those, 21 reside in the Hall of Fame, all except Chris Antley, who arguably should as well, given that his meteoric career was equal parts amazing and tragic. But while Antley's personal transgressions and cut-short career might be reasons for exclusion, those two factors are undeniable hallmarks of Borel's story. He's loved by all, and he's plied his trade in a workmanlike manner that typifies his 27-year professional career.
Lovability and longevity go a long way in endearing yourself to the pubic for all time. By those two considerations, Borel would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in any sport. But numbers are necessary for historic accomplishments to be appreciated, and I mean BIG numbers.
We all recognize that merely winning two Kentucky Derby renewals, like Borel has done with Street Sense and Mine That Bird in the past three years, does not speak of an entire body of work. Legendary jockeys like Steve Cauthen, Laffit Pincay and Pat Day each won just one Derby, to the counterpoint, and no one would argue their placement in Saratoga Springs. With Borel, it's certainly not a case of "What have you done for me lately?" Rather, we're now pondering more so than ever, "What have you done throughout your career?"
Borel's 4,600-and-counting career victories rank No. 31 all time on the wins list, just behind fellow active rider Alex Solis. That's about 400 more trips to the winner's circle than Hall of Fame great Bill Hartack, who was enshrined in Saratoga Springs at the ripe old age of 27 back in 1959, while still in the ascent of his career. Of course Borel has not reached Hartack's heights of nine Triple Crown race wins (five in the Derby alone), but this comparison identifies how significant Borel's raw-win total rates.
But even his two Derby victories and massive number of career wins might not be enough to get Borel to the Hall of Fame just yet. With leading rider titles at meets including Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park, Ellis Park, Louisiana Downs, Delta Downs and Kentucky Downs, Borel has never paced a colony at Saratoga. Typecast strictly as a rider in the mid-South and Kentucky throughout his career, Borel's résumé must overcome a sense of regional underappreciation.
Take away his roughly four minutes on Street Sense and Mine That Bird, some might argue, and his résumé pales in comparison to fellow regional dominator Larry Snyder, who won 6,388 races during his career on an almost-identical circuit as Borel; but Snyder is not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, plenty of regional riders have racked up big win totals without a groundswell of national accolades or Hall of Fame support.
Mario Pino has topped 6,000 scores while rarely venturing outside of Maryland, and is still counting. Ronnie Ardoin won 5,200 races almost all in Louisiana before retirement. Tony Black has netted 5,100 victories, and you could probably count on one hand the number of those achieved 100 miles from center city Philadelphia. David Gall racked up wins at Fairmount Park faster than a taxi meter, more than 7,300 when he finally dismounted.
Borel undeniably has enjoyed more national success and appeal than these fine regional riders. But before his teaming with Street Sense in the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and 2007 Kentucky Derby and Travers, it would have been impossible for voters to leap-frog Borel's résumé over these type of riders. He simply did not have the big-race résumé, boasting wins in important races like the Apple Blossom and Stephen Foster, but he was void of those signature-moment races that define a career.
That was then. This is now. And when you pile on his sensational run with victories aboard Mine That Bird (Kentucky Derby) and Rachel Alexandra (Kentucky Oaks, Preakness), Borel's Hall of Fame credentials have come calling to the doorstep at Saratoga Springs. Those victories served as testaments to his unparalleled riding skill, showcasing timing, patience, confidence and pure guts. Borel was not just a pilot; he was the reason both horses won their respective Triple Crown races, one by scraping the paint and the other by overcoming a hideous outside post position.
Calvin Borel still might make the Hall of Fame even if he loses Saturday's historic run at a jockey's Triple Crown. But there should be absolutely no denying his place in the annals of horse racing history if he guides Mine That Bird to the white carnations.
Given his uplifting spirit to the industry, significant everyday résumé and penchant for big-game heroics, Calvin Borel deserves all the praise one can heap on a jockey. "Hall of Famer" sounds right to me. He might as well go out and seal the deal Saturday.
The season's final "Countdown to the Crown" column comes Thursday this week to ESPN.com as I'll take a look at each contender in the final jewel of the Triple Crown. And if you'd like to talk Belmont Stakes, I invite you to join me and ESPN/ABC Sports producer Tim Turrell for a live Belmont Stakes chat from 8-9 p.m. Eastern this Wednesday at Horseplayerpro.com.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayer.com.
Approximately 164 miles separate Belmont Park and the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.