LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If there was such a thing as an honorary doctorate in racetrack geometry, Calvin Borel would be first in line for the sheepskin.
The 43-year-old Louisiana-born jockey showed again Saturday that he is a true difference-maker in the Kentucky Derby, piloting the Todd Pletcher-trained Super Saver on a rail-skimming trip to a 2½-length victory in the 136th Run for the Roses. It was classic Borel: He broke alertly, guided his colt to the fence and stayed glued to it except for one quick semicircle to pass a tiring horse.
The victory — Borel’s third in four years — puts the jockey in a position to add to his success in the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, when he will try to keep alive Super Saver’s bid to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978. More about that later, but first let’s appreciate Borel and Super Saver.
In winning his third Kentucky Derby in four years, Borel — or “Borail” as he is known to racing fans — showed once again he is the most successful rail rider since Freddie the Freeloader, the hobo character made famous by the late comedian Red Skelton.
But it also demonstrated a lesser known trait: Beneath Borel’s self-effacing down-home demeanor lies a master horseman and tactician.
Borel rode Super Saver just once during his 2-year-old season, cruising to a wire-to-wire victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in November. He remembers the colt as a “need-the-lead” horse who would go to the front and run as fast as he could, as far as he could.
When he was reunited with Super Saver in the Arkansas Derby on April 10, Borel decided to try a little experiment and see if he could get the WinStar Farm homebred to relax and cede the lead to another horse.
The experiment worked, to a point. Super Saver dropped more than three lengths behind pace-setter Line of David in the early stages, but he was unable to pass that rival in the stretch and ended up second, beaten a neck.
Despite the loss, Borel was encouraged that Super Saver was no longer a one-dimensional speedball.
“That’s what I really wanted to see,” he said.
The lessons continued after Super Saver arrived at Churchill Downs, with Borel getting on the colt in the morning to reinforce the “relax early, surge late” pattern.
“I came back and worked him real easy the first quarter, then he picked up and the gallop out was real strong,” he said.
The final test came Saturday, and Super Saver passed with flying colors. This time Borel dropped Super Saver, a son of Maria’s Mon, more than five lengths behind the lead, and put him on the fence. The formerly headstrong colt accepted his instructions like he’d had a hot-oil massage before race.
Then, when Borel asked him to run entering the stretch, Super Saver quickly circled the fading front-runner Conveyance, speared inside new leader Noble’s Promise and then slowly drew clear in midstretch. Ice Box made a strong late run to get second, just edging Paddy O’Prado.
The victory added Borel’s name to the illustrious roster of jockeys who have won back-to-back runnings of the Derby — Isaac Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, Ron Turcotte and Eddie Delahoussaye.
He also became the first rider to win it three times in four years, and now trails only three riders in overall Derby wins — Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack with five apiece and Bill Shoemaker with four.
As polished as Borel’s riding skills are, Pletcher said both before and after the race that there is something about Churchill Downs that seems to bring out the best in him.
“Calvin Borel is a great rider anywhere he goes, but for some reason at Churchill Downs he’s even five lengths better,” said the trainer, who produced Super Saver in top shape to break his 0-for-24 streak of futility in the Derby, thanks in large part to a perfect ride by Borel.
Borel, who had the basics of horsemanship drilled into him by his brother, Cecil, at a very young age when he began riding racehorses on Louisiana “bush” tracks, has a simple explanation for his dominance at the Downs: .
“Churchill Downs … is exactly like Louisiana Downs — every pole, everything is the same — and I know it like the back of my hand.”
Borel is less familiar with the terrain that lies ahead, as he and Super Saver attempt to become the 12th tandem to win racing’s Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
He did win the Preakness last year aboard the filly Rachel Alexandra after taking off Derby-winner Mine that Bird, but this will be his first attempt to press on with the one who brought him to the dance.
At the post-Derby press conference, Borel said he thinks Super Saver has yet to show his best.
“I think this colt might just get better, If God’s willing and he stays sound,” he said. “I think he’s a horse that will take us all the way.”
But some of the other competitors in the Derby might have something to say about that.
The most likely spoiler could be Ice Box, who had a full head of steam turning for home only to encounter a wall of horses in front of him, forcing jockey Jose Lezcano to take him up sharply and wait for a hole. When Lezcano finally shifted him out and got him into the open, the Nick Zito-conditioned colt finished strongly. He also galloped past the winner past the wire, suggesting he had plenty more in the tank.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux, who rode third-place finisher Paddy O’Prado, said he horse also had to steady in the stretch and then cut sharply out to avoid a tiring horse.
“If I got through, I would have won,” he said.
Lookin At Lucky, the longest-priced favorite in Derby history, at 6.60-1, had his fate cast in the opening yards, being pinched back as Noble’s Promise and then losing more ground when slammed by Stately Victor in the upper stretch.
None of those horses were immediately committed to the Preakness, but at least one or two of them are likely to continue on. Another possibility is fourth-place finisher Make Music for Me, would be expected to seek a rematch in Baltimore.
The Preakness also usually draws a couple new shooters whose connections decide to pass the Derby for one reason or another. Among possible contenders in this camp are Derby Trial winner Hurricane Ike and Mr. Fantasy, winner of the Withers Stakes.