Louisiana has given horseracing its fair share of famous jockeys but the argument could easily be made that Calvin Borel is the most famous rider to emerge from the bush tracks of the Pelican State. Known for his ability to save ground in races by hugging the inside of the track, a technique that has gained him the nickname “Bo-Rail”, Calvin Borel has three Kentucky Derby victories under his belt and can claim numerous other stakes wins. He has also been a guest at the White House where he dined with President George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II.
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Borel was born in St. Martin Parish in 1966 near Catahoula. Like many other jockeys from South Louisiana—Randy Romero, Kent Desormeaux, and Shane Sellers to name but three—Borel learned his craft on the rough and rugged bush tracks of Louisiana where trainers would match their horses in unsanctioned, head-to-heads races. Borel was riding in bush track races by the time he was just eight years old. Borel’s brother Cecil also tried riding but was unable to make the transition to professional jockey because of weight issues. He became a trainer instead and young Calvin got his professional start by riding horses at Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana.
It was an early lesson imparted by brother Cecil that instilled Calvin’s determination to ride the rail in races and save ground. After losing a race by a slim margin in which he kept one of Cecil’s horses in the middle of the track, the older brother had Calvin walk a horse around his barn. At each end of the barn Cecil had placed a large plastic barrel that forced Calvin to go around instead of hugging the barn wall as he walked the horse. After a while Cecil removed the barrel to demonstrate how many steps Calvin had saved by not having to go around. It was a lesson that Calvin never forgot. In races after that day he would sometimes get white marks on his back riding boots from scraping paint off the racetrack rail as he rode.
The technique began to pay off. In 1991 Borel had the mount on Free Spirit’s Joy in the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Given little chance of winning the race against stellar horses Lite Light, Best Pal, and Olympio, Borel was instructed by trainer Clarence Picou to keep Free Spirit’s Joy on the rail behind the speed up front. While Olympio and the others were blistering through the early fractions of the race in the deeper surface two or three paths out from the rail, Borel sat patiently on Free Spirit’s Joy while conserving energy on the tightly packed surface to the inside. In the stretch Borel passed the tiring Olympio to finish just 3/5 of a second slower than the track record time set by Gate Dancer. It was Borel’s first graded stakes win and the first of many longshot victories.
Despite his success on many major tracks, Borel remained largely ignored by top trainers until a victory in the 2006 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs aboard 91-1 longshot Seek Gold got the attention of Carl Nafzger. Nafzger secured the services of Borel for his young colt Street Sense in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Street Sense won by a record 10 lengths. The following May Street Sense became one of the few Juvenile winners to win the Kentucky Derby, giving Borel his first Derby win and cementing his place as a top rider.
Two years later Borel would score his greatest Kentucky Derby triumph. Given the mount on 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird after the horse he was scheduled to ride in the Derby was injured, Borel stunned the Churchill Downs crowd by piloting the unheralded horse to a win. The amazing victory became the subject of a 2014 feature film titled 50-1 in which Borel plays himself.
Calvin Borel would win yet another Kentucky Derby in 2010 on Super Saver, giving him three Derby wins in four years. At 49 years of age Borel is still guiding longshots to victory and to date has amassed 5,139 professional wins.