BALTIMORE — The star of one of the biggest horse races in the world is not a horse. That's a little like Boeing having its inaugural run of the 747 and everybody writing about the pilot.
Saturday, in the 135th Preakness, the ultimate pilot, Calvin Borel, will be ready for his next close-up.
He has earned star status with the most dramatic four-year run in Triple Crown racing. Aboard Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, he can increase his record of four victories, one second and two thirds in the last 10 Triple Crown races. He has been in the money in seven of 10, and the other three he didn't ride.
Since he weaved Street Sense home along the rail in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Borel has also won the Derby aboard Mine That Bird last year and Super Saver this year, and won last year's Preakness on Rachel Alexandra, and was second on Street Sense in the '07 Preakness and third on Denis of Cork in the '08 Derby and Mine That Bird in the '09 Belmont.
Friday at Pimlico, Borel was ushered to a spot beneath the grandstand for an autograph-signing session. More than 200 were in line. His arrival brought a buzz: "There he is. That's Calvin . . ."
Five years ago, he could have walked the length of the grandstand with nobody taking a second look. This time, he was cordoned off from the media by officials. "Can't talk now . . . he has agreed to only a couple of interviews . . ."
And so, a star is born.
Most often, Borel resists this sort of handling. Prima donna is not in his vocabulary.
His riding skills were learned on the bush tracks of Louisiana, where the elders would sit around at night and make bets on their horses and the 11- and 12-year-olds riding them, sometimes with chickens tied to the horses' tails so they'd run faster. Borel, fifth of five sons of a sugar-cane farmer, started when he was 8. The next-youngest of the Borel boys was Cecil, 12 years Calvin's senior.
"That's why they called me Boo-Boo," Calvin has often said. "That's what I was for my parents."
Cecil trained horses, and still does. He is among the top trainers at Churchill Downs, scene of Calvin's most dramatic moments, especially his laser-beam shot to the rail and wire last year aboard 50-1 Mine That Bird. Todd Pletcher, trainer of 5-2 Preakness favorite Super Saver, has said that Borel is an excellent jockey, but at his home track, Churchill Downs, "he is five lengths better."
From the start, Calvin rode for brother Cecil. He dropped out of school because all he wanted to do was ride horses. Cecil and his wife, Debbie, played a huge role in raising him, and to this day, at age 43, Calvin's constant remains his passion for riding.
"When I get up every day, it's a good day," he says. "That's because I love the game."
Cecil taught him the geometry of racing one day, after a wide ride had cost a victory. He had him walk a horse around a barn, with Cecil placing new barrels, forcing wider trips each time. Thus the lesson of keeping a horse on the rail, and his nickname, Calvin Bo-Rail.
Cecil taught him toughness. He got hurt badly at Evangeline Downs aboard a horse named Miss Touchdown. After a long healing process, the first horse Cecil put him on was Miss Touchdown, on whom he won.
Evangeline Downs, a small track in Lafayette, La., had night racing, and people there recall the last race ending at midnight and Borel back cleaning stalls and talking to the horses by 3 a.m.
When he won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, he did the first wave of postrace interviews on the run, because he had a horse in the next race. That's like Kobe Bryant wining Game 7 of the NBA finals and dashing off to play in a pickup game at the YMCA.
Beyond Borel, jockeys in general seem to be the main Preakness story.
Trainer Bob Baffert took Garrett Gomez off second choice (3-1) Lookin At Lucky and replaced him with Martin Garcia. "We had three horrendous trips," Baffert says. "No hard feelings to Garrett."
D. Wayne Lukas, fellow Hall of Famer with Baffert, immediately took Terry Thompson off his Dublin and grabbed Gomez. "Garrett was out of work about 20 seconds," says Lukas, who adds, "Baffert and I have the guts to make those kinds of changes. There's a little Bill Parcells in both of us."
Baffert says Garcia has worked Lookin At Lucky often and has a perfect nickname.
"I call him Alvin," Baffert says, "because he looks like a chipmunk."
Therein lies the perfect stretch call for the track announcer -- Borel aboard favored Super Saver and Garcia on No. 2 choice Lookin At Lucky:
"And they head for home, battling, neck and neck, Calvin and Alvin . . ."
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Preakness Stakes odds
The post positions and morning-line odds for today's Preakness Stakes (1:30 p.m. PDT, TV: Ch. 4), to be held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore:
*--* P HORSE ODDS 1 Aikenite 20-1 2 Schoolyard Dreams 15-1 3 Pleasant Prince 20-1 4 Northern Giant 30-1 5 Yawanna Twist 30-1 6 Jackson Bend 12-1 7 Lookin At Lucky 3-1 8 Super Saver 5-2 9 Caracortado 10-1 10 Paddy O'Prado 9-2 11 First Dude 20-1 12 Dublin 10-1 *--*