- Bill Finley
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Is Calvin Borel really better at Churchill Downs than he is anywhere else? Does he ever leave the rail? How much credit should he get for Super Saver's Kentucky Derby win? You have questions. I have answers.
Borel at Churchill: When it comes to winning percentage, Borel is no better at Churchill than he is overall. Throughout his career, he has more than 4,700 victories and his winning rate is 15 percent. At Churchill, through May 8, he has won 986 races for an identical winning percentage of 15 percent.
However, Borel is the bettors' best friend at Churchill. Anyone who blindly bet $2 win on his 6,556 rides at Churchill would have made $199. Subtract his turf mounts at Churchill and the profit on the $2 win bets goes all the way up to $734. With a sample size that large, for there to be a flat bet profit by simply betting on a jockey is simply amazing.
He seems to be getting only better at Churchill. He won with 23 percent of his mounts there in 2009 and is also winning at a 23 percent clip this year.
Betting on Borel at any other tracks shows substantial losses.
Borel away from Churchill: To Borel, Keeneland is the anti-Churchill. He can't seem to get out of his way there. During his career, he is a 9 percent winner at Keeneland with 126 wins from 1,397 mounts. Anyone placing that same $2 win bet on all his Keeneland mounts would have lost $874.
The other track that gives Calvin fits is Saratoga. He was 2-for-45 there last year and is 12-for-155 at the Spa overall or 8 percent.
His second favorite track is clearly Oaklawn Park, where he's won 859 races and wins at a 14 percent rate. Yet, that isn't nearly good enough to show anything close to a profit in the return-on-investment category.
Borel and the rail: Borel is indeed inclined to ride along the inside paths, but the whole "Bo-rail" mystique is a little bit overblown. Thoro-Graph, the speed figure and data service, keeps track of where the jockeys are on the turns and assigns a number to each rider. The lower the number, the better the jockey is at staying on the inside. Borel is a 1.9, which means that, on average, his horses race 1.9 paths off the rail. It's a good number, but not that much better than several other riders. Garrett Gomez is a 2.0. Most top jockeys are in the 2.2 to 2.3 range.
No One's Perfect: Before Street Sense came along in 2007, giving Borel his first Derby win at age 40, he actually lost a bunch of Derbies. He was 0-for-4 going into 2007 and hadn't finished better than eighth, his finish with Ten Cents A Shine in 2003. Granted, he was primarily riding hopeless long shots.
Sometimes, even Calvin can't find his way to the rail. The footnote of the 2000 Derby chart notes that Borel's mount, Exchange Rate, "raced five or six wide throughout."
Saving Ground, What's The Big Deal? It's too bad the Churchill Downs tracks haven't invested in Trakus technology, which puts chips in the saddle towels of every horse and, among other things, tracks exactly how far each horse has run. It would be fascinating to see how much further some horses ran in the Derby than Super Saver did.
Take Sunday's second race at Woodbine, a track that has Trakus. The winner, Catch the Luck, hugged the rail and covered 5,642 feet. Faye's Gray, who took the overland route and finished fourth, covered 5,704 feet, a difference of 62 feet. No wonder Faye's Gray didn't win.
Calvin on the Grass: The turf is not Borel's strength. Since 2007, he's winning at a 20 percent clip on the dirt at Churchill, but only wins with 9 percent of his starters on the Churchill grass course.
Calvin at Pimlico: He's 2-for-11 lifetime at Pimlico. He won last year's Preakness aboard Rachel Alexandra and the other win came in the 2007 The Very One Stakes.
Calvin on Calvin: Sunday's edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader included an excellent story by Alicia Wincze in which she got Borel to explain why and how he has become so good at staying on the inside. It's worth reading. He said some horses don't like being on the inside and he'll often test whether or not they like the rail when aboard them in the mornings.
"If you try to make them do something they don't want to do, I think you mess them up," he told Wincze. "Especially going into the turn, they'll jump off of it sometimes, and you know then, don't put them in that spot."
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.