For Calvin Borel, the week of the Belmont Stakes is unfolding like none other. Riding favored Mine That Bird on Saturday, Borel stands a chance to become the first jockey to sweep the Triple Crown on more than one horse, having won the Kentucky Derby on Mine That Bird and the Preakness on Rachel Alexandra.
Shortly after breezing Mine That Bird on Monday morning at Churchill Downs, Borel and his fiancee, Lisa Funk, boarded a plane for New York. For several hours that afternoon, the couple was tailed by an ESPN camera crew in and around Central Park, close to where they are staying. From there, Borel went to tape an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman," which was scheduled to air Friday night.
Tuesday morning, after a lengthy sit-down interview with an ESPN crew, he was off to a New York Racing Association luncheon and media briefing at Madison Square Garden. Thursday morning Borel rang the bell to open trading on the New York Stock Exchange along with trainers Chip Woolley and Gary Contessa, followed by another media conference at noon.
Life usually isn't so hectic for Borel, 42, who is most comfortable with the everyday tasks of training or racing Thoroughbreds. Having ridden his first race at age 8 at an unsanctioned bush track in the Cajun country of his native Louisiana, Borel has ridden professionally since age 16 with more than 4,600 victories.
For Borel, a more typical day was the Sunday before he departed for New York. Up before dawn, he arrived at the Churchill stable gate at 6:20 in his unpretentious silver-gray truck (model year 2000) that he drives to and from his home in the east end of Louisville, ready and eager for another long day.
Sunday, May 31 - 6:35 a.m.
Borel is seated shotgun alongside his longtime agent, Jerry Hissam, in the steel-blue Cadillac that Hissam uses to shuttle Borel to his morning rounds. They are waiting just outside the barn of trainer Helen Pitts, for whom Borel will breeze a 3-year-old named Crown the Chief. Two young girls approach the car and, without anyone asking, Hissam peels off two 5-by-7 photograph prints of Borel for him to autograph.
"Here ya go, girls," Borel says.
They walk toward the Pitts barn, where a small black cat is picked up by one of the girls.
"His name is Sooner," Borel jokes. "The sooner you get rid of him, the better."
Crown the Chief is finished with his work, and Borel and Hissam make the short drive to the barn of Borel's older brother, trainer Cecil Borel, where Calvin is scheduled to gallop a 2-year-old filly by More Than Ready. There will be a delay before the filly gets to the track, so Borel hangs out with his brother at the barn. Cecil finds it comical, if not surprising, that his younger brother insists on maintaining a grueling work schedule despite his success.
"Hissam thinks he needs all this," Cecil says, cackling. "I don't know, maybe he's right. It's pretty funny that the boy's won the Derby twice, though."
Hissam is on a viewing stand across from the five-furlong pole on the backstretch.
"I know he could take it a lot easier if he wanted to," Hissam says. "But that's not Calvin."
The More Than Ready filly emerges from the barn with Calvin aboard. She will gallop in company with a gray 2-year-old filly, also by More Than Ready, with the most strenuous activity being a brief blowout together, maybe a quarter-mile, around the clubhouse turn at the end of the gallop. Borel's filly, closest to the rail, gets to the six-furlong pole first.
Before he leaves, Calvin watches the horses cool out on his brother's shed row. After the gray rounds a corner, she is looking for her water bucket, but there isn't one. "Dave, the gray horse!" Calvin calls out to a groom.
Borel gets in his truck to go to see a few of his clients and friends, including trainer Carl Nafzger and Scooter Dickey, "to sign some stuff," says Hissam. With the track renovation break coming, Borel will tend to those errands before going to the other end of the stable area to breeze a horse for trainer Bobby Barnett, his last worker of the morning.
Shane Borel, 36, is the nephew, valet, close friend, and biggest fan of Calvin Borel. Shane works mornings as an exercise rider before moving over to the jockeys' quarters to tend to his uncle. On this morning, he is taking a rare breather during the renovation break.
"I take care of his boots, his saddles, his helmet, his goggles, all his equipment," Shane says. His father, Carroll, is one of Calvin's four older brothers. "I keep some snacks for him, chips or M&Ms, and all his drinks and ice. He's pretty particular about his stuff. So am I."
Calvin is scheduled to ride all 10 races on the Churchill card.
"It's been a long, long time since we've done that," Shane says. "I'll be up and down those steps like Flash Gordon today."
"I've known you since when, Calvin, 1986?" Barnett says. Through the years, Borel has ridden many of Barnett's top horses, including Halo America, Silent Eskimo, Littlebitlively, and the 1998 2-year-old champion, Answer Lively.
"One of the first horses he rode for me was Vaguely Crafty," Barnett recalls. "Calvin would come back and say, 'He's like driving a Cadillac, boss!' I think they both kept me from committing suicide one year down there at Louisiana Downs."
Borel says he can remember "like yesterday" what happened in the Ellis Park gate before the 1998 James C. Ellis Juvenile, when he was aboard Answer Lively. "We were 1-9, I think," he says. "We're in the 1-hole. The colt flips, hurts himself, bangs me up pretty good, and we have to scratch."
"Yeah, I remember," Barnett says with a groan.
Borel returns after breezing Jazz in the Park five furlongs in 1:02. Borel has ridden the 4-year-old colt in his last two races, including a turf allowance win at 16-1 early on the Derby undercard. Before re-entering the barn, he gives the colt a few strong pats and strokes his mane.
Borel seems to have a genuine affinity for all the horses he rides. The previous afternoon, his mount in the Dogwood Stakes, Affirmed Truth, broke down on the backstretch while closely tracking the pace from the rail.
"He called me all upset after the race and said, 'Find out what happens with that filly!' " Hissam says.
Sadly, she had to be euthanized.
Borel stops by Barn 42 to see Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, the owners of Mine That Bird, who have stopped by on their way from New Mexico to New York for the Belmont.
Borel pulls the truck into slot 17 in the new parking area reserved for jockeys inside the racetrack grounds, where fans entering from Gate 1 pass just a few feet from away when walking to the paddock or clubhouse.
For the next three hours, Borel will make himself at home - which the jockeys' room might as well be, since he eats, sleeps, and does just about everything else here. Borel has dramatically reformed his eating habits with the help of a nutritionist in the last couple of years. Earlier, he was a self-professed "heaver," inducing himself to vomit regularly to maintain his weight, and he also spent countless hours sweating in the dreaded "hotbox." But one glance at his incredibly thin but muscled frame shows that he is within the weight range he needs to be.
"He's about 110, 111 these days, tacking 13 or 14," Shane Borel says. "He hardly ever hits the hotbox anymore. He'll still get in the whirlpool and get a lot of rubdowns, but that's it. He might take a little nap, make sure all his stuff's in order for the day. He doesn't play pool or ping-pong or any of that stuff. He's all business in the room."
As he does on occasion, retired jockey Pat Day addresses the jockeys and valets in prayer before the races begin. He discusses the precarious plights of fellow jockeys Justin Vitek, who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia in Houston, and Rene Douglas, who was badly injured in a May 23 spill at Arlington Park in Chicago. Borel, like the others, listens intently and bows his head in silence.
Borel is the last of the six jockeys riding the first race to walk down the 31 stairs from the jockeys' room lobby to the walkway that leads to the Churchill paddock. (Thankfully, an up escalator returns the jockeys to the room.) He walks into the paddock and shakes hands with trainer Rob O'Connor, who gives him instructions and a leg up on Cow Creek Girl, a 7-2 shot in the six-furlong race.
Race 1: Borel and Cow Creek Girl gun to the front, find the inner rail, then pull away from heavily favored Singing Rose to win by 6 3/4 lengths - the same winning margin that Mine That Bird had in the Derby.
O'Connor is joined by his parents, wife, and two sons in a joyful winner's circle. Borel, however, is still all business. Before he guides the filly into the enclosure, Borel takes a drenched sponge from a stablehand and squeezes it all over the filly's head to cool her off - just as he did at Pimlico upon entering the winner's circle aboard Rachel Alexandra.
Race 2: Borel is leaving the paddock on Painted Forest, the even-money favorite, when the paddock judge orders the blinkers the gelding is wearing to be removed because the required procedures were not followed in requesting an equipment change. Does it make a difference? Painted Forest and Borel take the lead at the head of the stretch, but they are caught in the final yards by Tricky Chief to lose by a neck.
Race 3: Riding again for O'Connor, Borel saves ground on Sneak a Drink in the 5 1/2-furlong race, to no avail. They finish last of six.
Race 4: Up again for O'Connor, Borel is sitting pretty on Goes nearing the half-mile pole when the jockey is suddenly forced to take up sharply, going from third to seventh in a matter of strides. Still, the gelding resurges, and in the upper stretch he is fighting for the lead. He finishes third by 1 3/4 lengths, with the backstretch incident clearly proving costly.
"Calvin said the 8 horse shut him off," O'Connor says. "What can you do?"
Race 5: Borel is in perfect position down the backstretch when laying second aboard I'm the Truth, but the filly beats a steady fade to finish ninth.
Race 6: In his fourth and last mount of the day for O'Connor, things have gone from good to bad to ridiculous. General Jake hops at the start, spotting the field several lengths, then turns in a creditable effort to finish a nonthreatening third. O'Connor has to laugh to keep from crying, so he deadpans: "I told Calvin to see if he can't get this son of a gun to lunge at the break! Calvin's go-o-o-o-d!" Borel smacks his hands together and laughs.
Race 7: Incredibly, Borel's mount breaks behind all the others yet again, as Firmly Oriented gets away in a tangle and proceeds to trail the entire way in a field of 10.
Race 8: Borel is never a factor when finishing sixth aboard Unjust, the longest shot in the field at 23-1.
Race 9: Borel is a no-show to the paddock. Dehydrated, red-faced, overheated, and just thoroughly spent, he has decided to take off his last two mounts, Stream Kid in the ninth and Cinna Man in the 10th, neither of whom hit the board under substitute riders. Borel calls his personal physician and arranges to see him that evening to be injected with a supply of replenishing fluids and electrolytes, in much the same way equine veterinarians "jug" a dehydrated racehorse.
Monday, June 1 - 7:50 a.m.
Refreshed, Borel returns to the Churchill backstretch and is talking to a small group of reporters and curiosity seekers before climbing aboard Mine That Bird for his final pre-Belmont work.
"I pulled six pounds from the first race to the eighth," Borel says. "After that, it's hard to eat." He searches for the needle mark in his arm from the night before. "I got my jug, had something to drink, went home and went to bed. Just another workday."