Thursday June 4th, 2009

Late Saturday afternoon, Calvin Borel will chase an odd piece of history: He will try to become first jockey in history to win horse racing's three Triple Crown races on two different horses. His pursuit creates an odd slice of sideways hype for a race that truly needs a horse -- not a human -- to attract mainstream attention.

Borel will be attempting to accomplish a feat that has never been attempted, his own personal Snake River Canyon. First, Borel won the Kentucky Derby with an already-legendary rail-painting ride on 50-1 shot Mine That Bird. Then, two weeks later he declined to ride back on the Bird and instead rode splendid filly, Rachel Alexandra, to victory in the Preakness. With Rachel skipping the Belmont, Borel will go back to Mine That Bird, where he is the 2-1 morning line favorite.

It's a struggle to find historical traction in Borel's work. No jockey had ever taken himself off the Kentucky Derby winner to ride another horse in the Preakness. Dominoes fall from that beginning: No jockey had ever won the Derby and Preakness on different horses. And of course -- this doesn't take a genius -- no jockey has won the Derby on one horse, the Preakness on another and then the Belmont back on the Derby winner. And no matter how old you are, I'm comfortable saying it won't happen again in your lifetime.

The curiosity of the achievement will blur Borel's work, both in the last five weeks and the last 26 years. His ride on Mine That Bird in the Derby was a marvel of patience and timing. He let the Bird fall nearly 30 lengths off the pace, yet never urged him until he wanted to run. "An awful lot of riders would have hurried him up into the race,'' says trainer Ian Wilkes, who rides Borel regularly at Churchill Downs. "Calvin knows his horses.''

In the Preakness, he made himself one with the gifted Rachel Alexandra, even though she never found efficient footing on the deep Pimlico surface. "She hated that track,'' Borel said Thursday, shaking his head almost three weeks after the fact. "I still can't believe she won the race the way she hated it.'' Seldom has a jockey been better in consecutive Triple Crown races.

But Borel is 42-years-old, and has been riding since he was 16. He has been discovered by a wide audience only in the last three years, having also won the 2007 Kentucky Derby on Street Sense. He has been on Leno and Friday night his taped appearance will be shown on Letterman. None of it throws him. "Cool and collected,'' he said Thursday. "Just like in a race.''

Jockeys are small, cute and deferential. (Borel calls other adults "sir,'' with breathtaking regularity). Their size and demeanor distract fans from the courage required to play -- even once -- and the sacrifices demanded to work a lengthy career. Borel has seen all of that. He has lost his spleen to the game and broken dozens of bones. He still dives to the rail and takes what he calls, "the shortest way around,'' while riding a twitchy, tiring animal that weighs more than half a ton.

But with jockeys, it all comes down to weight. They are fully grown men who maintain the bodies of pre-pubescent boys. (Pre-pubescent boys, in fact, often make the best riders... until they mature). Borel is 5-foot-5 and walks around most days at 112 pounds. His upper body is a nest of tight, wiry muscles wrapped in small coils around his skeleton. His legs are like chicken bones enmeshed in a thin layer of hard flesh. It is the perfect jockey's body -- small and impossibly strong. To sustain it, Borel spent 24 years throwing up his meals once a day.

This is not rare among riders. In many racetrack jockeys' quarters, there is a seatless toilet specifically for "flipping,'' or "heaving,'' as they call it. (When I first began covering horse racing in the late 1970s, I saw a jockey sitting in the locker room eating a massive hot fudge sundae between races. Clueless, I mentioned to one of the attendants that the jock must have a great metabolism and the attendant looked at me as if to say, "How dumb are you?'') In recent years, the practice has been more publicly discussed by ex-jockeys like Randy Romero and Chris McCarron. But it remains common and largely unspoken. Borel started as a teenager and was still heaving in November of 2006 when a nasty spill left him in a Louisville hospital for nine days with a broken wrist that needed surgery.

There, his fiancée, Lisa Funk, encouraged him to seek help. "The hospital has a clinic, that's almost like rehab for somebody who drinks, where they teach you how to eat right and stop heaving,'' says Borel. "It was embarrassing for me to do it. I saw a lot of stuff in that clinic. A lot of young girls who were trying to stay thin. So sad. You can't even imagine how sad.''

Funk stayed with Borel 24 hours a day. They taught her how to cook small, nutritious meals and Borel how to control his weight without throwing up. He says he hasn't flipped since that hospital stay.

"Heaving all the time is so hard on your body,'' Borel says. "And I was lucky. I was only doing it once a day. Some guys do it more than that. Stopping was the best thing I've ever done for myself. It's like my brain turned around, from not heaving. I feel so much stronger. It's made me such a better rider.''

Make no mistake, his new life is not easy. On an average day, Borel rises at before 5 a.m. and eats breakfast, typically a single hard-boiled egg and a piece of dry toast. He works horses in the morning -- almost every morning -- and then during the race card eats a Power Bar. In the evening he eats dinner -- a small portion of fish or chicken and steamed vegetables. It's less food than he once ate (and less in a week than some people eat in a day), but he keeps it all down. "I don't eat hardly nothin','' says Borel. "But I eat it now. It took a while to get used to it, but my stomach is all shrunk down.''

If Mine That Bird wins the Belmont on Saturday, Borel will once again be at the center of the story and will again deliver like few athletes with fame thrust suddenly upon them. He cried for his deceased parents in Kentucky and praised a sublime filly in Baltimore. He finds the moment with uncommon clarity, yet on his best days it is also worth remembering all the moments that came before it.

Click here for the bettor's guide to Belmont

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