Commentary

Solid gold in the saddle

Updated: May 12, 2010, 1:44 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Leave it to the delightfully quirky Cajun vernacular of Calvin Borel to produce this description of his physical condition:

Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra win the 2009 Preakness Stakes
Horsephotos.comBorel celebrates his 2009 Preakness win aboard Rachel Alexandra.
"I'm sound as a dollar brass."

I asked Borel's agent and unofficial translator, Jerry Hissam, for a definition. He waved a hand as if to say, "That's just Calvin, go with it." Then he offered his best guess.

"He just means he's solid as brass," Hissam explained.

If that's the case, Borel is selling himself short on the precious metal market. Forget brass; he's solid gold right now and becoming richer with every Triple Crown race he rides. If anything, his value is increasing with age.

Sports are rarely the realm of the middle-aged. But for the hottest jockey on the planet, life began at 40.

That was Borel's age when he won his first Kentucky Derby, in 2007 aboard Street Sense. Then he won his second last year at 42 on Mine That Bird. And his third on May 1 at 43 with Super Saver.

This is, quite simply, unprecedented. Twenty-one other jockeys have won multiple Derbies in the race's 136 years of existence -- but only two of them won after the age of 40. Bill Shoemaker won his fourth and final Derby at age 54 in 1986 aboard Ferdinand, and Angel Cordero won his third and final Derby at 42 in 1985 aboard Spend A Buck.

No other rider has won multiple Derbies in his 40s. Not two and certainly not three.

At an age when the vast majority of athletes -- including most jockeys -- are wearing out, unbreakable Calvin Borel is sound as a dollar brass.

Borel not only is fit enough to ride full cards virtually year-round but also is a regular at the track in the morning. Not many top-echelon jocks work horses during training hours and report back to the track in the afternoon for the races. Calvin does.

"I love my job, sir," he said. "I love what I do."

Given his morning regimen, Borel just might lead the nation in overall hours spent in the saddle, with no visible wear and tear. He's had his injuries, of course -- all jockeys do. He pointed to his right wrist, where five pins and four rods were inserted to heal fractures from a spill on Thanksgiving Day 2006.

But right now, Borel is lean, fit and feeling great.

"I'm not hurting nowhere," he said.

By this point in life, many jockeys are struggling mightily with their weight -- or simply tired of fighting the daily battle with the scale. That factor alone has chased legions of riders into retirement. But 5-foot-4-inch, 116-pound Borel has gone the opposite way, becoming better at controlling his weight as he has aged.

Borel said he stopped flipping -- self-induced vomiting to lose weight, a distressingly common practice among jockeys -- several years ago. He eats better now, thanks in large part to healthy cooking by his wife, Lisa. He takes better care of himself.

Another fairly common malady for middle-aged jockeys is mental: They can lose their nerve.

Calvin Borel wins his third Kentucky Derby on Super Saver
Horsephotos.comAtop Super Saver, Borel, right, wins his third Kentucky Derby.
It takes incredible guts to balance on thin metal stirrups while urging a 1,000-pound animal into tight spaces at speeds up to 35 mph, knowing that a single rash move could be career-ending -- if not fatal. Some riders, as they become more comfortable, decide the risks aren't worth it. Yet Borel remains the most fearless of riders when it comes to working the extreme inside of a track, routinely hugging the rail and piloting his way through traffic.

"I have no fear," he said. "The day I look at a horse and have fear, I'm going to retire."

Yet even with a conquered eating disorder and undiluted courage, nobody believes Calvin Borel has become a better jockey as he has gotten older. Just a more appreciated one. Owners and trainers are finally recognizing his talents and rewarding him with improved mounts.

"I think he's riding better horses," said Churchill Downs-based trainer Dale Romans, who finished third in the Derby with Paddy O'Prado. "I've seen him ride that same race [the rail-hugging trip in this past Derby] 100 times on $10,000 claimers at Churchill. He's just getting an opportunity from some better stock. And that's one great thing about him: He didn't change. He hasn't cracked under the pressure or gotten nervous riding these better horses. I think it's the same race, just better horses."

"I'm just riding better horses," Borel said. "I've won almost 5,000 races, and I was never known until '07. It just took one man to believe in me [Street Sense trainer Carl Nafzger]."

In truth, not everyone believed in Borel even then. His Derby mount in 2008 was 27-1 shot Denis of Cork, trained by another Churchill-based trainer who knew Borel's work, David Carroll. (Borel rewarded him with a surprising third-place finish.) In 2009, he was aboard 50-1 shot Mine That Bird -- another clear sign that the world was not yet buying Borel as a Derby savant.

Finally, this year, the rest of racing came around. Borel got a live mount (Super Saver) with a superstar national trainer (Todd Pletcher) and prominent ownership (WinStar Farms).

"I've always held his ability in the highest regard," Pletcher said. "But I think, like everyone else in the last three years or so, we've become more aware of just how good he is at Churchill specifically."

On Saturday, of course, it is time to take the show on the road -- to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, to be exact. And the other Triple Crown venues haven't exactly been graveyards for Borel, either.

He won the Preakness last year with filly Rachel Alexandra, then was third in the Belmont with Mine That Bird. In his past seven Triple Crown races, Borel has an astonishing four wins on four different horses, a second and two thirds -- one of the great runs in the history of thoroughbred racing.

For a young man, it would be simply one of the great runs in the history of thoroughbred racing. For a 43-year-old, it's arguably the best ongoing story in all of sports. At an age that can make a fool of any athlete, Calvin Borel is sound as a dollar brass and solid gold in the saddle.

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