ELMONT, N.Y. - — BELMONT, N.Y. - -Maybe Calvin Borel didn't envision it would be quite like this. Maybe he never dreamed he would have a chance to grab his own quirky piece of history today in the 141st running of the Belmont Stakes atop Mine That Bird, as he tries to become the first jockey to win all three races of the Triple Crown series on two different horses.
But Borel has always believed. Anyone who knows him and loves him can attest to that. He has always dreamed of the day when he would ride racehorses faster and better than anyone else in the country. It didn't matter to Borel that his fantasy seemed absurd, that he was a poor kid being raised on a Louisiana sugar-cane farm deep in Cajun country. He struggled so much in school, he had trouble learning to read or write, eventually persuading his parents to let him abandon formal education when he was 13.
Borel convinced himself that every bush-track race he entered, every stall he mucked and every nag he worked, was building toward something. He even revealed to Sports Illustrated that he had to overcome an eating disorder along the way. The journey took the better part of three decades, but now at age 42, that dream has become a reality.
Lisa Funk, Borel's fiancee, asked him recently if he ever envisioned a day when he would win the Kentucky Oaks, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in one stretch. Borel's response spoke volumes.
"Every day of my life," he said.
"I had faith in him and his talent, but I know this business," Funk said. "It takes owners and trainers that believe in you and will not listen when people say, 'Why aren't you taking him off in favor of someone else?' I have to give a lot of credit to those people, because they'll give you your breaks in this business."
It's probably fitting that Borel will be riding Mine That Bird as he tries to complete the sweep, an undersized gelding with a crooked gait owned by a pair of New Mexico cowboys and trained by a former rodeo man, Chip Woolley. It's two unlikely camps coming together at the right time to make history and prove just how unpredictable sports can be sometimes.
After riding Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby last month, Borel made history by becoming the first jockey to switch horses for the next leg of the Triple Crown. He rode filly Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness in Baltimore on May 16. When Rachel Alexandra's owners decided to skip the Belmont, Borel returned to Mine That Bird.
"I want to win the race for Chip and the owners because I owe it to them for giving me the opportunity to ride this colt and make my dream true," Borel said. "Winning the Triple Crown, it might not be on the same horse, but it's very good to me and my career. And it's another milestone. I'm very, very high on the horse because I love him."
Borel raised a few eyebrows this week by guaranteeing victory for Mine That Bird, a fairly bold prediction - even though the horse will go off as a 2-1 favorite - when you consider that Borel has never ridden in the Belmont Stakes. Charitable Man (3-to-1) and Dunkirk (4-to-1) have both the pedigree and the extra rest that Mine That Bird doesn't. But Borel has engendered so much goodwill in the sport over the years that his comments didn't seem to rub people the wrong way.
"I'd want my jockey confident, too," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Charitable Man. "[Borel] has a lot of respect from all over the racing world because he's such a hard-working guy. He works a lot of horses, he cleans stalls, he does a lot of things a lot of jockeys don't do. Everybody likes him because of that. You have to pull for a guy like that - just not Saturday afternoon at 6 p.m."
Most trainers believe that jockeys, just like any other athlete, can settle into stretches when their confidence is running so high, they believe they can't lose, similar to the way a basketball player believes he can't miss a shot. Borel might be experiencing that kind of run. The pressure seems irrelevant right now.
"Calvin is pretty laid-back ... " said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Flying Private and Luv Gov, who has won 13 Triple Crown races. "It's an athletic performance. When a hitter gets in a groove or a guy starts hitting three-pointers in the NBA Finals, those guys' confidence goes way up. They believe they're invincible. And I like that on a rider."
Lukas said if he has one criticism of Borel, it's that he almost works too hard, too often.
"But he's got so much energy and he's such a good horseman," Lukas said.
Because the Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown races at 1 1/2 miles, it requires a precise strategy for when a jockey needs to make a horse accelerate. It's unlikely Mine That Bird will be anywhere near the lead for most of the race, but Borel seems to have enough guts to ride through traffic for long stretches, an innate sense for when to step on the gas.