Bob Ford | Shed row to the winner's circle

Posted: May 07, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On the front side of the track, in the sparkling terrace boxes, one of which contained the queen of England for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the sport of horse racing can be nothing less than a thrilling riot of colorful silks, stampeding thoroughbreds and champagne for the winners.

On the back side, however, along the barn rows where the horses are stabled and groomed, where the work begins early and never ends, there is a different side to the game.

It is a timeless dichotomy, the Upstairs, Downstairs of a sport that is as brutal as it is beautiful, as gritty as it is glitzy. For Calvin Borel, who rode winning Street Sense in the Derby, there has been a lot more back side than front side in his life.

The cheers went all around the track on Saturday, for longtime owner Jim Tafel, a stubborn man who stuck with trainer Carl Nafzger through some lean earnings years; for Nafzger himself, who is regarded as one oasis of clean training in a sport that encourages more suspect methods; and, particularly among the grooms and stable boys, among the other jockeys who also risk their lives daily for a small piece of the action, it was Calvin's moment. One of their own.

Calvin not only rides on the Louisiana, Kentucky and Arkansas circuits, but he works in the mornings exercising horses for his older brother, Cecil, a trainer who mentored him from the start. A few weeks ago, when one of the stable workers didn't arrive on time, Calvin mucked out some stalls himself.

That may seem like a small thing, but Borel has won more than 4,000 races in his career and escaped a desperate early situation in life to make a comfortable living. Now that he has taken the winner of the Kentucky Derby across the finish line, it can only get better.

But Borel's roots make it impossible for him to be above taking a pitchfork to a pile of hay and horse manure when necessary. If he were asked to do it tomorrow, he'd do it.

There are hundreds of Calvin Borels around the country, most of them still working anonymously at the small tracks, and Saturday's win was for all of them in a way. All they need is good people to believe in them and good horses to ride. Borel finally found both.

Some trainers have shied away from using Borel because he is largely unlettered and not the sort of polished fellow they might prefer. Borel dropped out of school during the eighth grade after he broke his knee in a riding accident and went to work for his brother soon after that.

He rode his first race as an 8-year-old in the unlicensed match races that still take place on cleared fields in some parts of rural, boggy Louisiana. It is the equine version of drag racing in the streets . . . your horse against mine, for whatever money is in the pocket that day.

There wasn't much formal training for the horses. It is perhaps apocryphally told that roosters were occasionally tied to their tails to serve as motivation in races. Borel confirms that the standard method of dismounting after some match races was simply to jump off after the horses crossed the finish line. The reins were mostly to keep the jockey upright, not to control the wild beasts, and it was best to just let them run out the adrenaline and then collect them afterward.

With a start like that, Borel's toughness is understood. He began to ride professionally when he reached the legal age of 16, suffered the usual number of falls and mishaps. He has some plastic ribs as the result of one accident on a filly owned by Cecil. When Calvin recovered, his brother put him on the horse as his first mount back in the saddle. Cecil is kind of tough, too.

All that riding squeezed out the reading and writing portion of his education and now Calvin, 40, is working with help from his fiancée on bettering some of those skills he couldn't acquire earlier. He does have a computer in his head, however, a nearly infallible atomic clock that knows the pace of each race down to the last 10th of a second.

Those skills are the ones that mattered to Nafzger, who could have dumped Borel in favor of a big-name jockey when Street Sense made it obvious he was a legitimate Derby horse. If Street Sense had suffered a poor ride on Saturday, the critics would have been all over the trainer for sticking with the rube.

Instead, he was rewarded with a brilliant performance. Borel - riding the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, which is something that might lead to impatience - held the horse back when he felt the pace was too quick.

He didn't care that Street Sense was in 19th place after a half-mile or 17th after three-quarters.

Borel used the rail and waited with the assuredness of a man who knows he has the best animal beneath him. "I felt like I was sitting on a bomb," Borel said.

At the end, he didn't just jump off the horse. He waved his whip, pointed to the heavens, bawled as he thought of his late father, of his brother who was waiting to meet him in the winner's circle, and of all those hard afternoons on bush tracks and all the dreams he never had time to dream because there was just too much work.

"It was sunup to sundown," Borel said as the sun in Kentucky was just about to dip behind the soft hills in the distance.

Someone asked about winning the Derby in front of the queen and Borel had to stammer something, because it turned out he hadn't heard she was coming. That would make him the only one who hadn't, by the way. But he had a job to do and was concentrating on it.

So it was, in this odd sport in which high roads and low roads collide, that while limousines carried patrons to their terrace boxes a certain jockey drove to the track in his own high-mileage pickup truck. And on the first Saturday in May, Calvin Borel didn't know the queen of England was there, but by the end of the 10th race, the queen knew about Calvin. Now that's a story they never would have believed back home.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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