I would suggest that not since the days of Sea Biscuit has Thoroughbred racing been so inspirational. First there was the stunning victory of 50-1 long shot, Mine That Bird, in the Kentucky Derby. This horse's improbable success--he was a mediocre performer--was largely made possible by the intuitive talents of jockey Calvin Borel who guided him to the 6 and 3/4 length win on May second--largest in Derby history since Assault in 1946. At a time when the economy is plunging and moral is sagging, the sport of kings provides inspiring entertainment. Lately I'm wishing for a race track closer to home.
There was no doubt that "The Bird" would make a bid for the Triple crown by running next in the Preakness. Surely nothing would stop Calvin Borel from climbing aboard the bay gelding and collecting another jewel in the crown (not to mention a whole lot of cash).
Borel would become the first rider to leave a Derby champion at the Preakness. In what was called an "unprecedented step," he chose to ride Rachel Alexandra, a horse he calls, "The greatest racehorse I've been on in my life." A filly? Those unfamiliar with racing may not realize the less than favored status fillies get saddled with (pun intended). Colts are overwhelmingly favored for racing, testosterone apparently giving them an edge over most fillies. And the Preakness--at 13/16 mile--is the ultimate challenge. Only three fillies have attempted the Preakness since 1939. Borel knew what he was doing. Last weekend Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. Mine That Bird finished second. Right now I'm singing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T--Can you hear it?? Here's to Girl Power.
My favorite quote from Borel regarding the filly he loves (he rode her to a 201/2 length finish in the Kentucky Oaks-a race for fillies-the day before the Derby) is this: "When you look into her eyes its unbelievable. You win."
What does an 8th grade drop out who can barely read and write know about winning? A lot. He knows that what sits at the core of a winning spirit is something nobody can give, or takeaway from you--Heart. Combine this with a willingness to work and success will come. Borel's skill at recognizing heart in a racehorse must come as a result of this quality in his own life. It has moved him from three decades toiling in obscurity to the highest echelons of his sport. Heart is what made it possible for him to keep riding after a horrific accident as a young jockey; heart is also what motivated a "lesser" choice in mounts for a high stakes race--a choice that seemed largely based on pure love of a horse.
But don't forget the work. Only a stellar work ethic prompts a jockey to wake up early to visit his horses so he can be in tune to their nuances. Work ethic prompted Borel to return to Churchill Downs the day after his victory to ride horses of much lesser ability rather than bask in the glory of his six-figure win. At age 42, this winner of over 4,000 races still mucks stalls for his trainer brother, Cecil.
An "over night success?" Hardly. Calvin Borel has more than earned his place in the spotlight.