Browse Categories

His name is Calvin Borel, but some of his admirers have taken to calling him "Calvin Bo-rail," a tribute to his habit of skimming the rail, fearlessly squeezing temperamental, 1000 pound horses through narrow openings that other jockeys avoid, and riding to victory.

"It's the shortest way around the racetrack," he says.

After winning the 2007 Kentucky Derby with Street Sense, Borel raised his arms above his head, helmet in hand, and said, "It's the greatest feeling in the whole world." Two years later, he did it again, this time riding Mine That Bird to a 6 3/4 length victory that became the second biggest upset in Derby history. However he fares in this year's Derby, 2010 has already been memorable for the 43-year-old, 5' 4", 116 pound jockey.

He won five of 11 races on opening day at Churchill Downs, including the $200,000 Cliffs Edge Derby in which he rode Hurricane Ike across a muddy track while a tornado watch was in effect. "You go out trying to win every race you ride," Borel said, "and we did a pretty good job of it today."

In February, he became the 61st recipient of the Santa Anita George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, one of the most coveted awards in racing, voted on by his peers to honor outstanding professional careers and personal character.

Borel's professional accomplishments have earned him fame and financial wealth, but it's his personal character that has made him an immensely popular figure in a sport known for its cut-throat competitiveness. "This is horse racing," observed Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre, "where being angry is the oxygen of the sport."

But no one got angry at Borel even after he rode another horse, Rachel Alexandra, in the Preakness rather than the horse he rode in the Derby. He won that race, too, becoming the first jockey to win the first jewels of the Triple Crown on two different horses. People admire Borel for his friendliness, down to earth manner, and his modesty. He has much to boast about, but never boasts. When told he was the man of the hour following his Derby win in 2009, Borel merely said, "We try hard, sir."

"There are three things about Calvin," Carl Nafzger, Street Sense's trainer, said. "One, he's got integrity - he's good to his word. Two, he's a horseman - he really understands them. Three, he's loyal." TV analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said, "Calvin has no enemies. I rode against him for 20 years, and he's a legend." Borel's brother, Cecil, observes, "If there's somebody on this racetrack that don't like him, that person's got a serious problem."

Calvin Borel was born November 7, 1966 in Saint Martin Parish, Louisiana to French speaking Cajun parents. Early on, he was nicknamed "Boo-Boo" because his birth was a surprise, a mistake, resulting from an unplanned pregnancy. Before Calvin joined the Borel home, the previous baby of the bunch was already 13-years-old. The Borels farmed sugarcane, but their passion was horses. They attended races at bush tracks where a crowd of perhaps 100 people would gather around a cow pasture to watch and bet on the races. It was there that Calvin heard his calling, although to hear him tell it, the call came even earlier. "When I was born, I wanted to be a jockey," he said.

He got his first horse when he was only four-years-old. "A horse called Charlie," he reminisced in an interview with National Public Radio, "and I broke him in and everything and got him going, and there was nothing I couldn't do, and he come in the house with me. I mean he was amazing."

His brother, Carol, remembers Calvin's early start. "Four years old, he was riding. He fall off, he get up, he get back on it." Brother Cecil observed that "he had no lick of sense. He was never afraid of nothing. Before he could walk, he tried to ride."

The Borel family valued a strong work ethic above traditional education, and, like his brothers, Calvin bypassed high school. After dropping out of school in eighth grade, he spent his time at the track where he received a more relevant education for someone whose destiny was to race horses. "Where we come from, there was only one way to make it," he said, "and that's to work at it."

He worked at it, and his brother, Cecil, who claims he practically raised Calvin, was his mentor. "I didn't give that sucker no time to play or party growing up. He worked."

After Calvin lost a race in his teens riding one of Cecil's horses, his older brother had Calvin walk the horse around a barn, pushing a barrel out a little more each time they passed, and instructing Calvin to bring the horse around it. Through this training, his riding style developed.

"My brother taught me everything I know," he said of Cecil. "He taught me how to sit. He taught me how to hold my hands. . . He kept me straight all my life and made me work hard and accomplish everything."

At 16, he began to ride professionally. In the '80s, he won three riding titles at Delta Downs, and in the next decade was triumphant at Louisiana Downs. He worked at Churchill Downs where he was known as a tireless rider, but little more than that even after winning a riding title there in 1998. He was not being invited to ride the big name horses in the most important competitions. That began to change in June 2006 when Borel rode a 91-1 longshot named Seek Gold in the Stephen Foster Handicap. By then, he was regularly riding Street Sense whose trainer, Carl Nafzger, saw that the horse and the jockey had "developed such a bond. Any of the 1,000 top riders can ride a good horse," Nafzger told ESPN. "They're just the passenger. A good horse will do anything a rider wants him to do."

When Street Sense was ready for the big time, Nafzger never considered replacing Borel with a more famous rider. The bond that Borel establishes with the horses "makes them run even better," Nafzger observed. Riding Street Sense, Borel won the Breeder's Cup by 10 lengths in 2008. A year later, he won six races on a single race card at Churchill Downs, becoming only the sixth rider in history to accomplish that feat.

It was his 2007 victory in the Kentucky Derby, riding a horse named Street Sense, that represented Borel's breakthrough after decades of obscurity. Suddenly, Calvin Borel was a star. Only two days after his victory, he was a guest at a White House dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, which might have impressed him if he had a clue concerning her identity. "The Queen of England, baby," his fiancee, Lisa Funk, informed him when they were being interviewed together. He's a celebrity who receives invites to sit down for late night chats with Jay and Dave, and to ring the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange, and as esteemed a figure in his sport as Lebron James and Tiger Woods are in theirs.

The days when he was passed over in favor of jockeys with more illustrious marquee names are gone for good. “The second derby validated him,” his agent said.

In 2009, Borel rode Rachel Alexandra, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Horse of the Year to triumph in the Kentucky Oaks, the Preakness Stakes, and the Woodward Stakes. And, of course, he won the Kentucky Derby again, this time mounting Mine That Bird. The odds were 50-1 against them, but they won in a dramatic last to first place victory in which Borel once again stunned onlookers with his trademark skim the rail approach.  If anyone thought Borel simply got lucky two years earlier, the 2009 Derby convinced them otherwise.

Borel has suffered many injuries during his lengthy career, including a shattered kneecap, a ruptured spleen, and assorted broken bones. During a race at Evangeline Down, Louisiana when he was a teenager, Borel was thrown into a light post, broke several ribs, punctured his lung, had to have his spleen removed, and ended up in a coma. The horse, Miss Touchdown, was not injured, and when Borel had recovered enough to ride again, Miss Touchdown was the first horse he mounted. "If he was scared," his fiancee said, "his brother scared him out of it." Borel and Miss Touchdown won the race.

"I've had a few spills," he told NPR, adding "I've been lucky, I'm not paralyzed." Some of his friends have been killed in accidents, but Borel says, "I love it so much, I mean, I don't let that get in my way, you know what I mean? To me, if you're scared, that's when you're going to get hurt." His agent, Jerry Hissam, says, "He's such a hard worker. He's here six days a week and gets on six or seven horses in the morning and then rides six or seven in the afternoon." But his fiancee disputes the claim that Borel's tireless efforts are an example of a work ethic. "Everyone calls it a work ethic," she says, "but it's not work to him. It's something he loves. Calvin would do it for practically nothing. It's his life. It's his desire."

As proof, you can usually find Borel back at work after a big win instead of celebrating or submitting to a flurry of interviews. Star or not, he still helps to clean stalls and performs other unglamorous stable chores for his brother at Oakland Park.

He insists that he has no superstitious rituals he performs before a race. He chooses to be prepared instead.

"I get focused, pumped up, ready to ride. I look at the form, I go over it good, and I try to see where every horse is going to be in every race. And it's not saying that that's gonna happen . . . but 85% of the time, it almost happens like you expect it to happen, you know. That's what I go by."

On Saturday May 1, 2010, we’ll see the results of Borel’s preparation when he rides Super Saver, a 15-1 shot, for Todd Pletcher in the Kentucky Derby. Win or lose, Borel’s reputation is secure, as he undoubtedly seems to be himself. Like many another who has achieved greatness in his chosen field, Borel remains a simple, modest man who works hard and lets his achievements speak for themselves.

"As a jockey, all you can do is your best, and as (for) a horse, all you can ask is that they do their best. When that happens, you've got a chance."

2 Decades of our Silk Throw Creations 

Visit the 
and see our collection
of Silk Throws
spanning 2 decades!