Calvin Borel: Remembering His Roots

In addition to his three Kentucky Derby wins, Calvin Borel was the regular rider of legendary Rachel Alexandra.
In addition to his three Kentucky Derby wins, Calvin Borel was the regular rider of legendary Rachel Alexandra. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Calvin Borel readily admits to being poorly educated, and yet his knowledge of horses is as deep as the ocean is vast.

In a world filled with artificiality and superficiality, a world that emphasizes style, Borel is as real, as substantial, as it gets.

Borel’s willingness to learn horses from the ground up, his dedication, and his loyalty all contributed to his rise from humble Cajun roots in Louisiana to his induction into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2013.

Borel and Mine That Bird win the Kentucky Derby.
Borel and Mine That Bird win the Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When he sat down for an interview (in 2015), Borel reflected on his standing as the only jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times in a four-year span, his 5,000-plus career victories, his historic rides aboard Rachel Alexandra, and his racing immortality as a member of the Hall of Fame.

“I've had an awesome career,” he said. “When you can sit back and look in the cabinet and have three Derby trophies and the Hall of Fame, it brings back very good memories. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.”

Borel (now 53) began riding in match races when he was 8. He never loses sight of the people who played a major role in his development. His brother, Cecil, a trainer, taught him so much about horses, how to put them at ease on the way to the starting gate, how to fill them with confidence that they could meet the demands of the race together.

He will always feel indebted to Carl Nafzger, a trainer who had much to do with his Derby success. It was Nafzger who was rightly convinced that Borel was the perfect fit for Street Sense and that they would accomplish big things together, including winning the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2007 Kentucky Derby, the first such duo to complete that sweep and one of only two alongside Nyquist.

Borel said of his association with Nafzger and his magical ride with Street Sense: “We brought the horse up together, me and him, and it was amazing. I knew I would never get taken off the horse, and I rode the horse with a lot of confidence.”

Nafzger – “Mr. Carl” as Borel refers to him – also added to Borel’s confidence when Mine That Bird vanned in from New Mexico for the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Past performances did not flatter Mine That Bird, but “Mr. Carl” had always told Borel that horses are on rather even footing in the Derby because of the large field, a roaring crowd that annually exceeds 100,000 spectators, and the fact that no 3-year-old was ever asked to run a mile-and-a-quarter before as required on the first Saturday in May.

Borel said of Mine That Bird: “Coming into the race, I thought he could compete.”

That belief translated into one of the great upsets in the history of the run for the roses.

Borel was in the right place at the right time when Super Saver provided him with his third Derby triumph in four years. Super Saver blossomed in the weeks leading to the opening leg of the Triple Crown, and relished a muddy track at Churchill Downs for trainer Todd Pletcher.

The rider’s accomplishments aboard Rachel Alexandra are the stuff of legend. After barely nudging her when she was the runaway queen of the Kentucky Oaks, he wisely left Mine That Bird to ride her in the 2009 Preakness, where she became the first filly to win that race in 85 years. They teamed for an emphatic victory in the Haskell Invitational before Rachel Alexandra, with Borel asking her for every ounce of strength she possessed, emerged as the only 3-year-old filly to defeat older males in the history of the Woodward Stakes. 

Borel said in 2015 that he feels as though he is living a dream every day. “I love riding. I love coming out in the morning,” he said. “I love what I do.”

In other words, he is having way too much fun to retire any time soon.

Note: This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.

Fun Facts

  • Pulled one of the great upsets in Churchill Downs history when 91-1 Seek Gold won the Stephen Foster Handicap in 2006.
  • Met the Queen of England when he was invited to a formal dinner at the White House following Street Sense’s Kentucky Derby victory in 2007.
  • Won six races in a single card at Churchill Downs on July 5, 2007.
  • Earned 5,000th career victory at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., on March 7, 2013. Dedicated win to Jerry Hissam, his long-time agent, who was ailing at the time.
  • Borel played himself in the film “50 to 1,” which revolved around Mine That Bird’s Derby upset in 2009.

This story was first published in 2015 and has been updated.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!