Commentary

Borel-Pletcher a super Derby combo

Updated: May 3, 2010, 2:10 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Todd Pletcher watched the Kentucky Derby on a TV in the horsemen's lounge at Churchill Downs.

Who was with him?

"Absolutely no one," he said.

This was some necessary alone time for a man who did not need to suffer on live television if his four Derby entries failed to win. This was also a departure.

The other nine Derbies the trainer had entered a total of 24 horses in, he'd watched from the grandstand. But those other nine Derbies all had ended without a visit to the winner's circle.

"Needed to change something," cracked the normally perma-stoic trainer.

Actually, the super-accomplished Pletcher already had made the only change necessary to break the most talked-about losing streak in horse racing. The guy who could not win the Kentucky Derby linked up with the jockey who cannot lose the Kentucky Derby, Calvin Borel.

With Borel on the back of Super Saver, it was only a matter of time -- 2 minutes, 4.45 seconds, to be exact -- before Pletcher's endlessly discussed losing streak was over. With yet another rail-skimming ride to the roses, Borel was back where he belongs and Pletcher was taken where he'd never been.

It was the third victory for Borel in the past four Derbies, something never before done in the 136-year history of the race. Oh, and the year he didn't win it, he finished third on 27-1 shot Denis of Cork.

It is a stunning domination by a guy who has seen his previously unspectacular career explode at an age when most athletes are breaking down. Borel won his first Derby aboard Street Sense at age 40, his second aboard Mine That Bird at 42, and now this win on Super Saver at 43.

If you'd bet just $2 across the board on Calvin in each of the past four Derbies -- an investment of $24 -- you would have pocketed $250.20. How's that for a return on investment?

Strangely enough, though, some trainers have been slow to invest in the Churchill-based Borel. It took longtime friend and racing partner Carl Nafzger to give him the breakthrough chance on Street Sense, and another local trainer, Kenny McPeek, to put him on Denis of Cork. Last year Borel nearly missed the Derby before obscure trainer Chip Woolley gave him the mount on 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird, a gelding he booted to one of the great upsets in thoroughbred racing history.

After that, there was no ignoring the Borel-Churchill dynamic. That's why WinStar Farms racing manager Elliott Walden suggested putting Borel on 2-year-old Super Saver for the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November 2009 -- a move that resulted in a 5-length victory.

Pletcher had Ramon Dominguez in the saddle for Super Saver's 3-year-old debut in March, a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. Then he went back to Borel last month for the Arkansas Derby -- where he finished second -- and there was only one logical choice for the big race.

Before the race, Pletcher kept his comments to the Cajun very simple.

"Ride him like you own him" was just about the only instruction Pletcher passed along to his jockey, whose uncluttered mind seems to be an absolute gift in pressure situations.

Borel doesn't own Super Saver, but he owns Churchill Downs. He said the track layout almost completely mimics Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., in the state where he grew up on horseback. So riding at the world's most famous track is basically an extension of his childhood instincts.

"Calvin is a great rider anywhere he goes," Pletcher said. "But for some reason at Churchill Downs, he's five lengths better. He's just figured out Churchill Downs."

What he's clearly figured out better than anyone who has ever ridden in the Derby is that the shortest way around the Downs is nearest the rail. That's how he's won countless races here. That's how he won on Street Sense. That's how he won, in daring fashion, on Mine That Bird.

And when asked immediately after the chaotic race if that's how he won Saturday, Borel's agent, Jerry Hissam, crowed, "Ab-so-lutely!"

It has become a cliché -- they call it the "Bo-rail" at Churchill -- but opposing jockeys seem powerless to stop Calvin from claiming the inside and scooting past them when the stakes are biggest.

It's like watching Oklahoma's old wishbone offense pound opponents. They would load up to stop the run, and still never did it.

"No one else wants to be on the fence," said Woolley, who came down from the grandstand to embrace Borel after this most recent Derby triumph.

It's generally true that the most trouble -- and therefore the greatest danger -- is located on the inside. There are safer escape routes from traffic to the outside. But it's also the long way around any oval.

Borel has never been one to let traffic or danger deter him from his chosen path. He smoothly steered Super Saver from the No. 4 post over to the rail and kept him there for almost the entire 1¼ miles -- getting him to relax off the pace, and keeping him impervious to the mayhem that went on throughout the rest of a chaotic, rough ride through the slop.

The only time Borel strayed from the fence was to go around a tiring Conveyance. He then dove back to the rail to shoot past drifting Noble's Promise.

After that, Borel went to the whip and Super Saver shot to the lead. By the time anyone else responded, he was home free in the home stretch.

"He gets first run, as I call it," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Borel. "When you get first kick, other horses have to make the second move."

Calvin Borel always seems to get first kick at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. And now that he's earned Todd Pletcher the one trophy he'd never held aloft, he should be every trainer's first pick to ride their horses on Kentucky Derby day.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.