Steve Cauthen knows a good horse tale when he sees it. In fact, he helped script the last truly great one 31 years ago. At just 18, the jockey dubbed "Stevie Wonder" guided Affirmed to victory over archrival Alydar by a nose in the Belmont Stakes and captured the sport's Holy Grail: the Triple Crown. The feat has not been accomplished since. But there's another narrative in the making this afternoon on the same Elmont, N.Y., oval that has captivated Cauthen, now 49, and much of the sporting world. An unassuming, long-overlooked jockey from Louisiana's Cajun Country named Calvin Borel can make thoroughbred racing history, becoming the first to sweep the Triple Crown aboard different horses.
For the record: Borel, 42, scored a dramatic rail-riding win on 50-1 shot Mine That Bird on May 2 in the Kentucky Derby. He switched mounts two weeks later to win the Preakness on much-ballyhooed Rachel Alexandra. And after the super filly's owners decided last week not to compete in the Belmont, Borel returned to Mine That Bird, the morning-line favorite.
"Calvin is writing his own story, and everyone is watching," Cauthen, a Hall of Famer who breeds thoroughbreds, said by phone. "He's such a nice guy, and other jocks are happy when he wins because things haven't exactly come easy to him. But it's all coming together for him. And right now, he is the story."
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After decades of racing in the shadows, Borel burst onto the national scene in the 2007 Derby on his home track. That's when he thundered along the Churchill Downs rail and out of obscurity aboard Street Sense.
The win put Borel — at the advanced age of 40 — on the map. But he again faded into the background as a journeyman jockey until yet another amazing rail-hugging dash last month. And he won over many TV viewers with his emotional postrace tribute to his late parents. Interviewed moments after the Derby while still in the saddle, he broke down and exclaimed in a quavering voice, "I wish they were here — if they could only be here to see what I accomplished in my life," and then tossed a rose skyward.
Borel has accomplished quite a bit since dropping out of school in the eighth grade to pursue his passion. Today, the man who stands 5 feet 5, 110 pounds is a sports giant, making headlines this week at a Manhattan media luncheon by calmly proclaiming of Mine That Bird: "He'll win. That's what we're here for."
Coupled with his three individual Triple Crown victories, Borel's portfolio of more than 4,600 career wins has vaulted him into elite company, No. 31 all time on the wins list. "People are even talking about how he may wind up in the Hall of Fame someday," veteran NBC horse racing commentator Tom Hammond said. "That's a far cry from what he was two years ago."
And it's a long way from his rural hometown of Chataloula, a good 8 miles from the nearest town of St. Martinville in southern Louisiana. He is the youngest of five brothers — and 13 years younger than his next-oldest sibling, earning him the nickname "Boo Boo," because his arrival was unplanned.
Borel's father, Clovis, was a sugar-cane farmer who often took his older boys to "match races" — informal but competitive showdowns — in cow pastures and fields that made up Louisiana's fabled bush tracks. Some were simply straightaways, and the boys who rode often weren't strong enough to pull up on the reins, so they jumped off while the horses were still running.
This is where Calvin learned his trade. He was only 2 when his father first put him in the saddle of an old mare and next-oldest brother Cecil guided him around. It wasn't long before young Calvin got the bug. He was a natural, learning the trade on the rugged bush tracks.
Cecil was a professional rider himself throughout the 1970s but had trouble keeping his weight down and became a trainer in charge of 60 horses. And he was his brother's guiding light.
"I taught him a lot," Cecil says in the book Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown. "But he learned quick on his own when he was very young. He was born to be a rider."
As an apprentice, Borel might earn $150 a day for more than a dozen races. Injuries came with the territory, and Borel, who became a professional jockey at 16, was seriously injured in a night race at Evangeline Downs when his horse clipped heels with another. He wound up in a coma with broken ribs and a punctured lung and had his spleen removed. But Cecil took care of him and got him riding again.
He also taught Calvin a lasting lesson. After a race in which the young jockey took his mount wide in an unsuccessful passing move, Cecil made him walk a horse around the barn. After one pass, Cecil placed a barrel near the corner of the barn and told Calvin to walk around it. The next pass, Cecil moved the barrel farther out and again made Calvin walk around.
"I told him, 'Boo, next time keep that sucker on the rail and take the short way around,' " Cecil says in the book. " 'If you get beat doing that … blame it on me.' "
Calvin Bo-rail was born.
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Billy Turner, who trained 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, says jockeys from Borel's neck of the Cajun woods have often been dismissed.
"People underestimate them, but there have been too many good riders to come out of that area," Turner said by phone from his Belmont Park stable.
Jockeys such as Shane Sellers and Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussay and Kent Desormeaux (who nearly won the Triple Crown last year on Big Brown).
"They come across as being hicks and really country, but they are very intelligent guys," he said. "Borel's a smart man. You don't win 900 races at Churchill Downs being stupid."
For his part, Borel seems right at home in the spotlight. He clowned with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show after his Derby win, was scheduled to appear in a taped spot on Friday's Late Show With David Letterman, rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday and entertained the national media at two sessions this week in New York. Asked why he felt no need to work on the track before his first Belmont Stakes start, he replied, "I've ridden there a lot of times. It's like any track — you just turn left."
Borel might have wound up with no horse today. He was waiting to see if the owners of Rachel Alexandra would commit their filly to the Belmont, while Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Woolley, was waiting on Borel. "He won me a Derby," Woolley, whose horse finished second to Borel at the Preakness, said May 28. "I feel like I owe him the opportunity if it's possible." A day later, Rachel Alexandra's owners decided not to run.
But making history isn't foremost on Borel's mind: "It would be awesome, but it won't sink in until afterward. I'm just going out there to win the race. I want to win it for Chip because I owe that to him for giving me the opportunity to ride the horse back. This is a dream, and I'm just riding it right now."
Down the rail and perhaps straight into the Hall of Fame.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541.