The son of a sugarcane farmer and the youngest of five boys, Calvin Borel is the most famous man in horse racing. The forty-four-year-old, originally from Catahoula, Louisiana, started jockeying full-time after leaving school for good in the eighth grade, participating in what are known as bush races in southwestern Louisiana. In 2007 he won his first Kentucky Derby, riding Street Sense. In 2009, he won the Derby on Mine That Bird, taking the long shot (50-1 odds) on his signature aggressive ride along the rails at Churchill Downs. He won the Preakness that year on the legendary filly Rachel Alexandra, becoming the first jockey ever to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown on two different mounts. (He nearly won the “jockey” Triple Crown, but Mine That Bird came in third in the 2009 Belmont Stakes.) Last year Borel cemented his sure Hall of Fame career with another Derby win on Super Saver, and during this year’s Triple Crown, he’s bound to be as busy as ever. We spoke with Borel at his home in Louisville.
Tell us about growing up in Catahoula and running in the bush races.
A bush race is one where people match a horse against another horse. We’d have a big supper on a Friday night, then the races on Saturday. You had certain people you rode for. And anything went in these races. I raced against a chicken on the back of a horse once. I raced against a string of cans. People did whatever they wanted. It was a great place to learn how to ride. Once you get through that, you’re polished up pretty good. It made me.
You are among a select group of jockeys who have won the Kentucky Derby three times. Is there one that stands out?
The first one, for sure. I knew going in that Street Sense had it, from my first day, from my first quarter of a mile on him. I went home and told my wife that night that this was the one, I’ve got my horse. I told Mr. Carl [trainer Carl Nafzger] that if everything goes right, this is the one that would win me the Derby. I was very comfortable on him. He just had a long stride. And it got so much pressure off my back.
Do you have a favorite horse? Maybe one of the Derby winners?
No, not the Derby winners. My favorite I ever rode was called Hello America. I rode her in the mid-1990s. She was a mare. She was unbelievable. I beat the best mares in the country with her. She wasn’t big, but she would shoot out of the gate and put us right in front, and she wouldn’t get tired. She just kept going. She was just so gutsy. But the best horse? Rachel Alexandra was the best horse I’ve ever ridden.
After each of your Kentucky Derby wins, you’ve seemed so animated and excited. Is it possible to describe the feeling of winning the Kentucky Derby?
You know, I still come home each day and pinch myself. I have goose bumps talking about it right now. You just can’t imagine. I really can’t describe it. Come on. It’s every jock’s dream. You can’t imagine how many phone calls you get after you win. They are all fun to take.
What’s the key to your recent success?
Well, I’m out at the track every day. I work it every day. I think that helps a lot. But really I try to get to know my horse as well as I can. I want to get on him. I want to gallop him. It keeps me happy, and it keeps the horse happy, and I know when he’s on his game and I know when he’s off his game. I can come back to the trainer and say, “Something’s just not right; he didn’t work like he’s supposed to.” With Super Saver, he was peaking at the right time. We got beat a few times before the Derby, but turned out best thing to ever happen. I knew he was headed in the right direction. We got him to relax.
Your nickname is Calvin “Bo-Rail” because you fearlessly ride right on the rail. You’ve had one crash that put you in a coma, and another that resulted in the loss of your spleen. Last fall, you broke your jaw. Is it worth it to be that aggressive?
My jaw is okay. I’m coming back strong. Is it worth it? Yes, sir. My brother always told me that riding the rail was the fastest way around the track. I’d rather get stopped than go around other people. Especially around the turn. You’re losing so much around the turn when you’re not on the rail. Sometimes the best horse doesn’t win. Sometimes it’s the horse who rides the shortest race.
You like to hunt and fish?
I do. I love to hunt deer. And me and my buddy Joe Johnson fish for crappie all the time in Arkansas.
Do you go out much in Louisville?
We live here and have a little farm in Florida where my wife rides her jumping horses. While I’m in Louisville, I keep to myself at my house on a lake. I don’t go out. I go to the track.
Do you know which horse you’ll be riding in this year’s Kentucky Derby?
Don’t know yet. But I got my eye on a colt here. I think he’s the real deal. He’s the son of a great horse. He’s a special horse. We’ll see.