LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a game of Choose Your Athlete, some decisions are no-brainers.
If you could select one driver for a NASCAR race at Martinsville, you go get Jimmie Johnson. Period.
If you had to pick one player to win at Augusta National a decade ago, the automatic choice would have been Tiger Woods. No debate.
If you wanted to win Wimbledon in the 1990s, you'd select Pete Sampras without hesitation.
The same should have been true for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Calvin Borel should have had owners and trainers lined up a furlong deep begging for his services.
When it comes to America's greatest horse race, he is Sampras in a saddle, Woods in white pants, Johnson in jockey silks. Nobody in the 137-year history of the Derby had won three of them in four years, until Borel did it in 2007-10 aboard Street Sense, Mine That Bird and Super Saver. Even the year he didn't win, 2008, Borel finished a surprising third aboard Denis of Cork at odds of 27-1.
But horse racing is a screwy sport, which is why somehow, some way, Mr. First Saturday in May was without a Derby ride until late last week. And the one he got, Twice the Appeal, has limited appeal.
At least until now. With Borel aboard, a horse that probably should be 40-1 could go off at half those odds come post time Saturday.
"I'm going to go out there and ride him like he's 3-5," Borel said, with his customary sunny outlook.
You will not catch Calvin complaining about his Derby hand. The 44-year-old Cajun is not likely to complain about anything, for starters, but he also knows that he's won this race on an animal even less distinguished than Twice the Appeal. That would be Mine That Bird, which was a telescopic 50-1 in '09.
Before that race, Borel told his wife, Lisa, "I'm going to get those guys a check, but I don't think I can get the big one." Then, when pre-race favorite I Want Revenge scratched on Derby morning, he called Lisa and told her to bring a suit to the track.
I think it's the craziest thing in racing. I thought somebody would've put him on contract last year right after the Derby and said, 'Whatever we got in there, you're our man.'
”-- Trainer Chip Woolley
It was a good call. What happened that day -- the biggest upset since 1913 -- earned a prominent place in Derby history. Which is why the trainer of that horse, Chip Woolley, cannot believe what has transpired with Borel this spring.
"I think it's the craziest thing in racing," Woolley said. "I thought somebody would've put him on contract last year right after the Derby and said, 'Whatever we got in there, you're our man.'"
Somebody should have, but that's not how it works in the rigid world of racing. Nobody rewrites the rules, no matter what hosannahs were shouted about Borel after winning last year aboard Super Saver.
Todd Pletcher, whose first 24 Derby entrants failed to win, declared Borel a great rider anywhere but "five lengths better" at Churchill. "He's just figured out Churchill Downs."
Three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said, "Calvin Borel is amazing. He is fearless. He takes control of the race, and you have to give him a lot of credit. He's a great rider."
And this from two-time Derby winner and 2010 runner-up Nick Zito: "I couldn't get lucky enough to beat Calvin."
Pletcher, Baffert and Zito are all saddling horses again in '11. And all of them passed on Borel.
There are reasons, of course. Certain trainers have their first-call jocks: Pletcher, for instance, goes with John Velazquez, who will ride Uncle Mo on Saturday. Many others choose their jockeys by region -- West Coast trainers like Baffert choose West Coast jockeys who ride for them regularly, and the same is true on the East Coast, where Zito trains.
Borel is a Midwestern guy. He lives in Louisville and also rides the Louisiana and Arkansas circuits. And the Midwest didn't produce many Derby-caliber horses this year.
In a normal year, Borel might have wound up on Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch. But trainer Jinks Fires stuck with the jockey he's had on that horse all along -- his son-in-law, Jon Court. Loyalty to kin trumps the urge to win.
The colt Borel pledged himself to this winter was Elite Alex -- a son of Afleet Alex, winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont. When Elite Alex flamed out, finishing ninth in the Arkansas Derby, there was no readily apparent Plan B.
"It was a no-win situation," Borel said. "It didn't pan out."
But it's also an ancient racing truism that jockey loyalty is fickle. They get fired all the time after losing races. In fact, look no further than Twice the Appeal's past performances -- he's had eight jockeys in 10 lifetime starts, and Borel will be his seventh rider in the last seven races.
And if ever there was a field full of excuses to change riders, this uninspiring collection of 3-year-olds is it. Only nine of the 20 won their last race. Most damning of all, just one of the 20 (Midnight Interlude) comes in having won two in a row. Nobody comes in with a hot hand.
So in a race full of undistinguished horses, common sense says jockey choice might make a difference in the outcome. All the more reason to call the biggest difference-maker of them all -- the guy who is five lengths better at Churchill than anyone else.
Except nobody did.
Ask Borel's agent, Jerry Hissam, how many calls he took inquiring about hiring Calvin in the days after the Arkansas Derby. He forms a circle with his thumb and forefinger.
"I can't explain it," Hissam said.
The competition for Derby mounts makes it even more inexplicable. It's not like this is a field full of Hartacks, Shoemakers, Baileys and McCarrons. Borel has won three Derbies, and so have the other 19 riders combined -- one each for Pat Valenzuela (1989, Sunday Silence), Victor Espinoza (2002, War Emblem) and Mike Smith (2005, Giacomo).
The thing that has separated Borel from his colleagues in recent years has been his ability to find uninhibited running space amid the demolition Derby. In a 20-horse field, the biggest impediment is traffic -- every year, the post-race Derby notes are filled with reports of bumping, jostling, horses being "shuffled back" and "checked" and "stopped."
As Hissam said of the 2010 ride aboard Super Saver, "There was not a footprint in front of him the whole race."
That's because Borel is famous for riding the rail, urging his mounts as close to the interior fence as nerve will allow. The far inside can be a dangerous place to run, due to the lack of maneuverability -- but as Calvin the geometric savant can tell you, it's also the shortest way around.
Racetrackers will often tell you that a sign that a rider has lost his nerve is when he routinely swings his horses wide to avoid the hurly-burly on the inside. Even in his 40s, after many broken bones and many big paychecks, Borel is willing to mix it up on the rail if it will help him win.
"He's the same Calvin Borel I met in 1991," Hissam said. "Everything that boy has got, he has earned."
Actually Calvin Borel earned a better mount than the one he has for this Derby.
But even a long shot has a chance here if he's in the saddle. And if Twice the Appeal somehow comes through and wins the roses, a whole lot of trainers will have some explaining to do about why they passed on the greatest Kentucky Derby jockey of his era.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.