Even after three Kentucky Derby victories in four years, one can still make the case that Calvin Borel isn't the best jockey in the country.
But two things cannot be disputed about the 43-year-old Louisiana native, who will try to win his second consecutive Preakness Stakes this week at Pimlico Race Course: No one in his profession is more fearless, and no one is more polite.
That might seem, at first, like an odd juxtaposition. But when you witness Borel on a day when he's at his best, as he clearly was May 1 when he rode Super Saver on a rail-hugging trip around Churchill Downs to victory in the 136th Run for the Roses, you see how perfectly the description fits.
Borel goes places other jockeys simply will not go. If broken ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured spleen and missing teeth from earlier in his career weren't enough to scare him away from taking the inside trip, it's safe to say nothing ever will. He finds openings and squeezes through them like a jackrabbit darting between fence posts. And when the race is over, when he's done whooping and squealing in his thick Cajun drawl, he turns on the bayou charm so quickly, he can't start or finish a sentence without sprinkling in a "yes, sir" or "no, ma'am."
Asked to describe how he managed to become the first jockey in Kentucky Derby history to win the race three times in four years, Borel shrugged and gave an answer as succinct as it was amiable.
"I was born to ride, sir," Borel said.
It's pretty rare in sports to see an athlete age like a fine Bordeaux, a red wine widely known for getting better and more valuable with each passing year. But Borel has somehow been the exception in horse racing. He didn't win his first Triple Crown race until 2007, when, at age 40, he guided Street Sense to a Derby victory. But since then, he has won the Derby twice — with Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver this year — and last year's Preakness aboard Rachel Alexandra.
Although Borel has shown more modest outcomes outside the big races — he finished just 14th in earnings for 2009 — his dominance in the Derby has become such a given that while other jockeys and trainers might know his game plan, they still can't figure out how to stop him.
"He's such a good guy and such a hard worker that you can't dislike him," trainer Bob Baffert said. "I hate him when he beats me, but he gets the job done. He's fearless. It's amazing and almost embarrassing the way he can win these Derbies now with ease. Last year, I joked I was going to put him on a horse and then scratch him [right before the race]. I should have done it."
Borel said there is simply something about Churchill Downs he loves. He was 7 years old when he learned to ride in Louisiana, and something about the Louisville track reminds him of home.
"It's a track just like Shreveport, Louisiana Downs," Borel said. "I was born and raised there, and every pole, every turn, it's exactly like Louisiana Downs. I know it like the back of my hand. I think that's why I ride so good here. I don't care what any jockey says, they favor a track sometimes. I know I go to a track sometimes and I get lost. I just love it here."
What's harder to figure out is why it took Borel so many years to emerge as one of the best jockeys in the sport. The answer is complicated. Much like NASCAR drivers, jockeys can control only so much of their fate. If drivers don't have a car that can go as fast as other cars, it's pretty difficult to win. The same is true in horse racing.
For whatever reason, Borel never seemed to be the guy at the top of the wish list for owners and trainers. It wasn't until his friend, James Tafel, gave him a chance to ride Street Sense that he was aboard one of the best 3-year-olds in 2007's Derby. But that's changing.
"I think he's riding better horses," said trainer Dale Romans, whose horse, Paddy O'Prado, finished third behind Borel and Super Saver in the Derby. "I've seen Calvin ride that same race 100 times on $10,000 claimers. He didn't change at all, and he hasn't cracked under the pressure now that he's riding these better horses. Half the deal with riding the rail is having the patience for it to open up. He has that."
John Sadler was hoping to have Borel ride Hurricane Ike, a new challenger entered in the Preakness. Borel had previously ridden for Sadler, but the trainer could only shake his head when Super Saver crossed the line first in the Derby.
"It didn't take me very long to figure out that our jock was not going to leave the Derby winner [this year]," Sadler said, referring to Borel's controversial decision last year to ride Rachel Alexandra after winning the Derby aboard Mine That Bird.
Even the top decision-makers at WinStar Farm, who own Super Saver, conceded they were slow to come around to the idea that Borel could be their guy this year.