Ten years ago this week, Calvin Borel's big assignments at Churchill Downs could hot have looked more different: Rachel Alexandra, an overwhelming favorite in the Kentucky Oaks who signaled what was about to come over the next few weeks with a stunning workout beneath the twin spires; and Mine That Bird, who was so far under the radar that he had very recently been ticketed for the Lone Star Derby instead of the Kentucky Derby.
Looking back, Borel does not need much prodding to marvel at the way the surreal weekend played out, with Rachel Alexandra roaring to a 20 ¼-length win on Friday and Mine That Bird blowing many minds with a 6 ½-length shocker at 50.60-to-1 in the Kentucky Derby.
At the time, Borel was still relatively fresh off his first Kentucky Derby score two years earlier with Street Sense, who had skimmed the Churchill rail with a powerful rally to become the first horse to sweep the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the run for the roses.
Still, even at home at Churchill, a mount like Mine That Bird was much more common for Borel at that stage of his career than a standout like Rachel Alexandra. He was used to scrapping for everyday mounts, let alone in Grade 1 races, and perhaps that drive is what made him the perfect match for Mine That Bird, even more than his affinity for rallying along the inside.
Borel pointed to a colossal upset at Churchill two years earlier as the breakthrough that ignited his career, which after all of Rachel Alexandra's further exploits and another Derby victory in 2010 with Super Saver, has earned him a place in the Racing Hall of Fame.
At Churchill in July 2006, Borel dropped jaws by guiding Seek Gold to a 91.70-to-1 shocker in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap . It was Borel’s first Grade 1 victory in over five years, and only his fourth top-level win to that point in a career that began in 1983.
"That is the race that really got me going," Borel said. "Everything kind of began to fall in place after that one, with Street Sense coming along that summer, and from there on it carried, for about seven years. It was awesome.
"I knew Rachel had a hell of a shot in the Oaks. I was already pretty convinced she was the best horse I had ever ridden, and I will say that to this day. I didn't know that much about Mine That Bird, but I watched his races at Woodbine [the previous year] when he was winning and at Sunland Park where he was getting beaten a few lengths after getting hung six- or seven-wide. All [trainer] Chip Woolley wanted was for me to take him back. I didn't want to be that far back, but we got bumped bad at the start and so I thought 'Ahh, hell, we'll just get back here and make a run.'"
Mine That Bird looked to have lost contact with the rest of the field heading into the first turn, trailing by many lengths, but a strong pace provided an assist and when Borel asked for his best in the far turn, Mine That Bird came through with an incredible answer.
"I was hoping to make a run and not really expecting to win, thinking he would maybe run third or fourth for the [connections]," he said, "But when I got to the three-eighths pole, I asked him a little and he took me to the second-to-last horse very quick and I thought 'Dang, I better find me some room,' because I hadn't even moved on him and the horses in front of us were coming back so fast. After that, when I turned for home, I thought I was a winner. He was running and they were stopping. It was just about finding some room."
The last hole Mine That Bird bounded through was razor thin, between Join in the Dance and the rail.
"Yes, it was tight, but when horses are closing that fast, you will get through so quick, and that's what he did," Borel said. "It was amazing. The little horse was there for me and he poured it on in the stretch."
Borel led a wild celebration with Mine That Bird's team but faced a surreal decision a few days later when Rachel Alexandra entered the picture for the Preakness Stakes. He went with the filly, surrendering the mount on the Derby winner to Mike Smith, and that decision proved to be correct when Rachel Alexandra powered to victory, with Mine That Bird checking in a game second.
"I know everyone thought at first that Mine That Bird was a fluke, but when he came back to run second to Rachel in the Preakness, I think he showed it wasn't a fluke," Borel said. "That was a fast track and he ran great against a superstar. What a couple weeks that was."
Now 52, Borel is still scrapping for mounts. He will probably be riding at Oaklawn Park on Kentucky Derby day instead of at Churchill, but if the connections of another longshot like Mine That Bird were to come calling for the Derby at the last minute, he would have plenty of reason to answer.