Commentary

Borel suddenly riding rails to stardom

Updated: June 6, 2009, 12:44 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Taped to the door of Cecil Borel's tackroom at Churchill Downs is a family history contained in two faded photographs.

They're dated April 23, 1972. The place is Breaux Bridge, a modest map dot amid the Cajun country of southern Louisiana. Another time, another world.

The top picture is an action shot. Teenage Cecil is riding Fast Tom to victory in a classic bush-track race: two horses running a match race between wooden rails, with fans close by on either side. According to the photo caption, the race was contested at Patin's Race Track. The distance was five arpents, a French unit of measurement used in the area since before the Louisiana Purchase.

The bottom picture is an informal winner's circle photo. Cecil sits proudly in the saddle, surrounded by older brothers Clifton, Clovis and Carol, all wearing cowboy hats. And the pipsqueak seated in front of Cecil on Fast Tom's back, all of 5 years old, is the baby of the family.

It's the boy the brothers still call "Boo-BOO." (Accent on the second syllable, very Cajun.)

Even then, Calvin Borel looked at home on a horse.

"Four years old, he was riding," Carol said by phone this week, his accent thicker than week-old gumbo. "He fall off, he get up, he get back on it."

Cecil looked at the photo on his door and smiled, thinking of his younger brother by 13 years.

"I hate to say it, but he had no lick of sense," Cecil said. "He was never afraid of nothing. Before he could walk, he tried to ride."

On Saturday, Calvin Borel will try to complete his fearless ride from childhood near-illiteracy and adult obscurity into sporting history.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Borel
Brian Schneider/US PresswireIn May, Borel rode Rachel Alexandra (yellow silks) to victory at the Preakness, which hadn't hosted a winning filly since 1924.

If Borel wins the Belmont aboard Mine That Bird, he will be the first jockey to sweep the Triple Crown on two different horses, having won the Kentucky Derby on the previously unheralded gelding and then the Preakness aboard favored filly Rachel Alexandra. He already is the first jockey to jump off a Preakness-bound Derby winner and then win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, a decision almost as nervy as squeezing Mine That Bird through a yard-wide hole on the rail to win the roses on the first Saturday in May.

Not even Kobe or LeBron owned the month of May like Borel. He rode in 10 graded stakes and won half of them, a preposterous percentage. He won 33 of his 125 races in the month and finished in the money 70 times. If you had bet $2 on him in every race in May, you'd have finished $184 in the black.

After 24 years of largely uncelebrated toil, Borel broke through by winning the 2007 Kentucky Derby aboard Street Sense. But it has been this past mesmerizing month that has established him as a Hall of Fame rider.

Now, he's 1½ miles of New York dirt and 2½ minutes away from entering an even more elite pantheon of his sport.

He's living proof that a career can take off at 40, having become the crying, smiling, giggling face of racing. And along the way he has become something even rarer: an almost universally liked sporting hero.

"If there's somebody on this racetrack that don't like him," Cecil said, waving a hand at the Churchill barn area, "that person's got a serious problem."

You could extrapolate that sentiment to the entire country. From the bush tracks of his youth to Leno and Letterman in middle age, Calvin has gone national. And quite unlike Jon and Kate, exposure hasn't eroded his appeal.

Perhaps that's because Borel has done so little to chase fame. Instead, it came to him. He goes where he's asked to go, does what he's asked to do, and comes away completely unaffected. The man's cheery exterior is genuine.

"If everyone in the world loved doing what they're doing as much as Calvin loves what he's doing?" asked Carl Nafzger, trainer of Street Sense. "Man, this would be a wonderful world."

The world's wonders keep improbably exposing themselves to the little Louisianian. He and Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday morning, an experience Borel described as "awesome" and "very nice." While that was going on, Cecil was in his tackroom grumbling, "I hope he don't break his goddamn finger."

This national celebrity turn is something the Borel family still is trying to wrap its calloused hands around.

"It don't usually happen to us from back home," Cecil said.

Home is St. Martin Parish, where the Borels farmed sugarcane and otherwise spent all their time with horses. Education wasn't considered anywhere nearly as important as work ethic. If you weren't an enthusiastic laborer, you weren't of much use.

"I came from the country, and I know I ain't smart," Cecil Borel said. "I went through the seventh grade. Where we come from, there was one way to make it, and that's to work at it."

Calvin never had much interest in school himself. His formal education lasted about as long as Cecil's. He'd already found his calling on horseback.

Calvin started riding match races at age 8 and became a professional rider at 16. He won three riding titles in the 1980s at Delta Downs and from 1992 to '94 at Louisiana Downs, but those tracks are far from the game's main stage.

He worked the Churchill Downs circuit during that time, then eventually moved to Louisville around the same time Cecil set up shop at Churchill as a trainer. His big brother had been a mentor all his life.

"Me and the old lady [wife Debbie] kinda half-ass raised him since he was 7 years old," Cecil said. "I didn't give that sucker no time to play or party growing up. He worked."

For most of his time at Churchill, Borel was just another hard-working rider. He was one of the more successful jockeys at the world's most famous racetrack -- earning his "Bo-rail" nickname for skimming along the inside -- but he was never a star like Pat Day.

I hate to say it, but he had no lick of sense. He was never afraid of nothing. Before he could walk, he tried to ride.

-- Cecil Borel on his brother Calvin

Borel won a riding title there in 1998, but it never translated to mounts on the big horses. Before 2007, his four Kentucky Derby mounts were long shots. When it was Derby time, Borel often sat in the jockeys' room and watched Day, Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron or fellow Cajun Kent Desormeaux get the glory.

In 2006, things began to change. Borel won the Stephen Foster Handicap on 91-1 shot Seek Gold in June, and he also became the regular rider on Nafzger's promising 2-year-old colt Street Sense.

Borel had a longstanding rider-trainer relationship with "Mr. Carl," as he always calls him. The two men shared a no-frills existence and seemed to enjoy every horse equally, regardless of talent.

"There are three things about Calvin," Nafzger said. "One, he's got integrity -- he's good to his word. Two, he's a horseman -- he really understands them. Three, he's loyal."

That loyalty was reciprocated when Street Sense began to blossom. Nafzger never thought about putting a higher-profile rider on his colt.

The initial payoff was winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths to cap Street Sense's 2-year-old campaign that November. Borel kept the mount into 2007 and had his breakthrough moment, at age 40, with a trademark come-from-behind charge to win the Derby.

"They developed such a bond," Nafzger said. "Any of the 1,000 top riders can ride a good horse. They're just the passenger. A good horse will do anything a rider wants him to do.

"What makes Calvin so amazing is that he builds a bond with so many of his horses. He makes them run even better."

Borel certainly brought out the best in Mine That Bird, a 50-1 Derby long shot who, realistically, should have been sent off at about 80-1. When the shifty little gelding came squirting through on the rail and into shocking daylight on Derby day, it was Borel at his best.

He might be an eighth-grade dropout, but Calvin Borel is a euclidean genius when it comes to race riding. More than any other jockey alive, he knows the value of finding the shortest route from Point A (the starting gate) to Point B (the finish line).

Watching this shocker unfold in the grandstand, Nafzger simply burst out laughing.

"It was funny," he said. "I couldn't believe it. There was Calvin on the rail."

It was a different trip, on a different horse with a different running style, that won the Preakness. This was no come-from-behind job: Calvin urged Rachel Alexandra from the far outside to the early lead, then held on as Mine That Bird came charging in the center of the track.

Before that race, Borel guaranteed victory, proclaiming that the only way he could lose was if he fell off the filly. For the Belmont, the guarantee is back, even though he's on a different horse.

"I'm confident, 100 percent, that he'll win," Borel said. "I think that's why I win races, because I ride horses with confidence."

That horseback confidence has been there since he was a baby in Breaux Bridge. The proof is on Cecil Borel's tackroom door.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.