Louisiana lightning strikes in Preakness' tight finish

BALTIMORE -- In the stretch drive of a blazing, thrilling Preakness, the finish distilled down to a Cajun match race.

Calvin Borel of St. Martin Parish, La., on the inside, urging Street Sense toward what looked like a second Triple Crown jewel in two weeks.

Robby Albarado of Lafayette, La., on the outside, furiously rallying Curlin and inhaling the daylight between his horse and the Kentucky Derby champion.

Toward the wire they surged, two friends so close that Albarado loaned Borel a tailored navy suit to wear on Derby day and again Saturday.

"We're like brothers," Albarado said.

If the brothers had even a millisecond to consider it, they would have recognized that this duel was not unlike the match races both jocks rode on the rough-and-tumble Louisiana bush tracks growing up.

Except that there was a record 121,263 fans at Pimlico Race Course, millions more watching on television, a $400,000 difference between first and second and a Triple Crown bid hanging in the balance. Same style of race, but stratospheric stakes.

Standing by the rail and watching the horses bear down on the wire, Street Sense's barn help was jumping, screaming and punching fists into the air as their colt surged into the clear -- shooting underneath Curlin and seemingly putting him away. But then Curlin regrouped and charged again, a rare sight in a horse race.

The mile-and-three-sixteenths battle came down to the final jump. To which head was bobbing farthest forward at just the right moment.

As the colts thundered past the wire, the only thing definite was that this had been an epic race: a Preakness record-tying time of 1 minute, 53.46 seconds, and a finish too close for the untrained eye to call. While everyone else held their breath down on the rail, Street Sense hotwalker Paul Rutherford dejectedly declared the winner. He held two fingers in the air.

The official final margin was a head. Really, it was more of a long nose. And it ranks among the most exciting Preaknesses in recent memory, along with the Silver Charm-Free House-Captain Bodgit charge to the wire a decade ago and the epic duel between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989.

"He beat us at the wire," said Street Sense trainer Carl Nafzger, "and that's where they take the picture."

On the track, the jocks knew, too. As the horses galloped out next to each other, Borel said to Albarado, "You got me. Congratulations."

I kept hearing him, and I looked under my arm and saw him. ... I'm glad [Albarado] beat me, if anybody had to beat me. We're like family.

-- Calvin Borel

Albarado had enthusiastically congratulated Borel two weeks earlier at their home track, Churchill Downs. Albarado had finished a disappointing third aboard Curlin in the Derby, but he was sincerely happy for his friend to earn his first Triple Crown triumph at age 40. Saturday was the same thing, in reverse: Albarado winning his first of racing's Big Three races after 16 earlier tries, and Borel overcoming his heartbreak to salute his buddy.

"Calvin and I came up basically the same way," Albarado said. "He's pulling for me just the same as I'm pulling for him.

"We might have dinner together tonight."

Albarado said crabs would probably be on the menu, this being Baltimore. But jambalaya might be more apropos, given their roots.

Cue the zydeco and laissez bon temps rouler. The Cajun invasion of jockeydom is on in full now.

Two weeks ago, the world embraced the unvarnished Borel, who quit school in eighth grade to devote his life to riding horses. The 33-year-old Albarado is more polished -- he's the one with the suits, remember -- but he's still a long way from urbane and never had it easy coming up.

Both riders endured years of difficulty making weight. In racetrack parlance they were flippers -- bulimics who forced themselves to regularly vomit their food. Both say they have now conquered that problem through a better understanding of nutrition.

Both have endured major injuries. Both never hesitated getting back on a horse's back. Both are first-team all-friendly to everyone they meet.

Both make their homes in Louisville and are among the top jockeys in Kentucky. But both came into the month of May needing a crowning achievement to move the final step up the ladder in their profession.

Albarado has probably been on more good horses during his career, but for years was still considered by some to be a step below the elite-level jocks like Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Pat Day and Chris McCarron.

Here in 2007, the game's two biggest races belong to the bush trackers.

The scary thing is to consider how close Albarado came to missing this race completely. Two hours before the Preakness post, he was skidding across the Pimlico turf course and simply hoping he'd survive.

In the Dixie Stakes, the ninth race of the day, Albarado was riding favored Einstein on the turf. While heading down the backstretch, Mending Fences suffered a right condylar fracture and went down not far in front of Einstein. (Mending Fences was euthanized on the track, another black mark on Preakness day at hard-luck Pimlico.)

Albarado said he saw Mending Fences jockey Eddie Castro fall to the left, so he veered Einstein to the right. When Einstein jumped to avoid the fallen horse, Albarado was pitched off his mount.

He said he slid hands-first across the grass, about 10 to 15 feet, like Pete Rose at warp speed. Believe it or not, falling off an animal running 35 mph can be a learned skill.

The hard way.

"I learned how to fall," Albarado said cheerily, referring to previous spills that left him with two separate skull fractures and other injuries that cost him months of riding time.

This time, Albarado was able to jump up without injury. But just in case, Curlin trainer Steve Asmussen visited the jocks' quarters to make sure Albarado he was OK.

He was fine and ready for the big race. Which began like a scene out of Albarado's worst nightmare.

Curlin had broken from the starting gate sluggishly in the Derby and encountered significant traffic trouble that contributed to his finishing third. Albarado said his entire focus during the Preakness post parade was a crisp break -- and then Curlin stumbled beneath him in his first stride, nearly to his knees.

"Obviously, I had to go to Plan B," Albarado said.

In the grandstand, Asmussen was aghast. Asked if he were "a little concerned," Asmussen said, "Probably a little more than a little. I was a little bit worried about a repeat of the Derby at that point."

The stumble meant Albarado had to hustle Curlin back into the race faster than he'd planned. Meanwhile, Derby runnerup Hard Spun was being urged too quickly into a sizzling pace by jockey Mario Pino, and as the horses came off the turn Curlin appeared well positioned despite coming wide into the stretch.

But then Street Sense loomed up to his inside, completing a bold set of moves by the redoubtable Borel. After making his mark with his scintillating rail ride in the Derby, Borel rode the hair off Street Sense Saturday.

He again dove bravely to the inside on the turn, this time squeezing into a small gap on the fence to pass tiring Flying First Class. Then he veered two wide to split Curlin on the outside and a beaten Xchanger on the inside.

As Street Sense put away Hard Spun, you could almost feel the Triple Crown electricity crackle in the Baltimore air. The sport is enduring its longest crown drought ever, since Affirmed in 1978, but it appeared to have another in a series of strong contenders for the Holy Grail well into the stretch. Given the powerful way Street Sense finished the Derby, this looked like a sensational sequel.

"I thought it was all over when I got by Hard Spun turning for home," Borel said. "… I went up on the inside of [Curlin], and [Albarado] was already riding him while I was just sitting, so I thought he was finished.

"I kept hearing him, and I looked under my arm and saw him. ... I'm glad [Albarado] beat me, if anybody had to beat me. We're like family."

The Cajun boys are keeping it all in the family this Triple Crown. Here's hoping for a rubber match at the Belmont in three weeks.

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