What a ride: from the Cajun bayous to a white-tie dinner

May 8, 2007 8:29 AM

I have spent much of my misbegotten life at racetracks, from Macau off the coast of China to Krieau in Vienna, from old El Comandante in Puerto Rico to Solvalla in Stockholm, from Vincennes in France to the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City.

Closer to home I worked at Suffolk Downs in Boston on the east coast and at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, and one fine June day in Arcadia I had Santa Anita’s longest priced horse in the first race locked up with everything in the second. I told the gorgeous blonde who was with me that I probably never would have more money than I was going to have after the second race, and we had better slip next door to San Gabriel and get married.

That was 57 years ago. The blonde is still with me and still gorgeous, and I’m still working for the tracks.

The point I’m making is that in all that time, at all those tracks and scores more, and in years in professional basketball and football, I never have see an athlete, in any sport, as deliriously happy as Calvin Borel after he skimmed the Churchill rail for a mile and a quarter with Street Sense to win the 133rd Kentucky Derby.

Borel, out of Louisiana Cajun country, looked and sounded the part. Before he ever opened that wide mouth, I knew a down south drawl would come from it.

On the long jog back after getting Street Sense pulled up and turned, Calvin was high-fiving everyone in sight, and as grooms and hotwalkers and starting gate crew and outriders rushed excitedly to smack his hands, Borel’s exuberant joy became contagious, even on TV.

Borel is 40 years old, but he acted like a kid who had gotten a fire engine on Christmas morning, and few watching could fail to rejoice with him, regardless of where they left their money, and on whom, at the betting windows.

Few of them knew, however, the background of this one-time bush league jock. He is no Gary Stevens or Jerry Bailey or Pat Day. His fiancée is still teaching him to read. His older brother Cecil, whom Calvin idolizes — they lost their daddy, who taught them all about horses, three years ago — says, "We don’t have much education, and we’re not proud of it. But we’re proud of what we’ve done."

What they have done is come from the bayou country of Louisiana to the storied spires of Churchill Downs, and conquered both.

Lost in the admiration of Borel’s ride as if Street Sense had been attached to the rail, was the fact that the canny veteran had done the same thing earlier Saturday afternoon, winning the $182,850 La Troienne with Silverinyourpocket.

Joe Drape, covering the Derby for the New York Times wrote, "They don’t call him "Bo-Rail" here at Churchill Downs for nothing."

Calvin first rode in Louisiana bush races when he was 8 years old, and then at places like little Evangeline Downs. He may not have learned to read, but he learned how to ride a racehorse with skill and daring.

The triumph of this journeyman jock, and the lifetime thrill that sent him skyward, may have been the most exhilarating sight I have seen in racing.

Bubbling and bouncing, he was overwhelmed by what he, and the horse he rode, had just accomplished.

Street Sense was 19th heading into the first turn, having only one horse beat, and if you had a bookmaker at your side and hit stop action on your TV as the field thundered into the backstretch, you could have gotten 50-to-1 on the spot.

This one-time backwoods jock with major league skills — he has won over 4,300 races with horses earning $83 million — picked up well over $200,000 for a few minutes work Saturday afternoon.

He and his fiancée had dinner Monday night with the President of the United States and Queen of England, in the White House.

Calvin Borel may not have been able to read the menu, but he probably was still smiling broadly, over the greatest moment of his life 50 hours earlier, and over the distance he has traveled from the bush tracks of the Bayous to the Bushes of Washington DC.