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Borel peaking in time for Preakness

BALTIMORE -- It's been pretty well established at this point that at the age of 43, Calvin Borel owns the Kentucky Derby. Three times in the last four years he has ridden the winning horse in the most important race in America, a transcendent event that owners, trainers and jockeys collectively spend entire careers dreaming of someday just contesting. Never mind winning.

Borel won in 2007 on Street Sense, the juvenile champion and favorite. He won in 2009 on 50-1 shot Mine That Bird, a desperate outsider whose victory gave life throughout the industry to the notion that anybody can win the Run for the Roses (categorically not true). And he won 13 days ago on Super Saver, a solid, headstrong colt who might prove great. Or not. We'll know much more after Saturday's Preakness, where Borel will try to put Super Saver in position to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 32 years.

In each of Borel's Derby victories, he's put his mount on the rail, a frightening place where neither humans nor animals are innately comfortable, but where he is blissfully at home. On Street Sense he passed 18 horses and drew clear to win by 2 ¼ lengths and on Mine That Bird he dropped 30 lengths off the pace and then passed 18 horses in 21 seconds, winning by nearly seven lengths. He showed fresh stuff with Super Saver, never falling more than eight lengths off the lead and never further back than sixth place. But still he stayed down low on the rail, where the earth was harder and the distance shorter, and won by daylight again.

Acclaim has come by degrees for Borel. He was 40 years old, a jockey of some sort for more than three decades, when he won the Derby on Street Sense; the win was viewed as a lifetime achievement award for a down-home Cajun with minimal formal schooling but deep understanding of what makes a horse run fast. Mine That Bird made him a cult hero, proof that he was something special on the wood at Churchill Downs. Super Saver, which made him the first rider in history (not Shoemaker, not Hartack, not Arcaro) to win three Kentucky Derbies in four years, has created a new church of Calvinism.

Jockeys customarily get 10 percent of whatever purse their horse earns (in the Derby, that purse is $1.425 million). But trainer Bob Baffert, who finished second to Mine That Bird on Pioneer of the Nile and sixth behind Super Saver with favored Lookin At Lucky, said, "At Churchill Downs, in the Derby, Calvin Borel should be charging 25 percent.'' Borel's agent, Jerry Hissam, says that won't happen.

At times in racing history, top riders have commanded significant appearance fees just to show up and ride a horse, regardless of where that horse finishes. (No jockeys are presently in that category). Hissam says Borel won't be doing that, either. Borel has been to the White House (in 2007) and he's done Letterman (in 2009), and he'll repeat either of those if asked but he won't be dialing up Dave.

There will be no wholesale changes, and to understand why, consider Borel's workday on Wednesday of Preakness week: He arrived at Churchill Downs in Louisville just after dawn. (Churchill is Borel's home base; he was expected to arrive in Louisville Thursday night and ride two races at Pimlico Race Course on Friday). He first worked a horse for trainer Ian Wilkes. Then he rode across the Churchill backstretch in Hissam's SUV, doing a radio interview on his cell phone. Next he worked another horse for trainer Buff Bradley, just beating a torrential thunderstorm off the dirt.

At 9:15 he pulled a towel out of a plastic bin in the back of his Cadillac Escalade pickup truck and wiped the sweat off his wiry forearms. It's important to say that many elite jockeys work horses in the morning, but very few top riders work multiple horses every morning for multiple trainers, both big- and small-time. (Even more remarkably, Borel's day wouldn't end for 12 more hours, when he rode seven-year-old gelding Grand Traverse in a minor, $75,000 stakes race at tiny Indiana Downs, 100 miles north of Louisville). "I love horses, I love to ride,'' said Borel, as he plopped down into the driver's seat and turned down the country music on his satellite radio. "I'm happy with my life. Before, it was just work.''

Before. That word hangs in the air.

In this case, "before'' means the 15 to 18 years (even Borel isn't sure) when Borel controlled his weight by intentionally throwing up every day ("heaving'' or "flipping'' in the parlance of the jocks' room). As he sits in the truck, Borel goes back in time. As best he can recall, he started flipping around 1990, when he was in his early 20s and it became difficult to make daily weight. He got into a routine of eating his one significant meal every evening and then purging shortly afterward. It made him weak, miserable and, eventually, desperate.

"I hated it so much,'' Borel says now. "Once I started, I couldn't get away from it. It's worse than taking drugs. You can't stop. It was taking away all my energy. I hated it. Sometimes I'd be out at night with people and all I could think about was, 'Where am I going to heave after I eat this?' I always had it in my head.''

In early November 2006, Borel won the Breeders Cup Juvenile (for two-year-olds, the year before they become eligible for the Kentucky Derby) on Street Sense at Churchill Downs. The trainer was the venerable Carl Nafzger, who had long been loyal to Borel and promised him the three-year-old mount on Street Sense. At age 40, it appeared that Borel was on the cusp of a career-making opportunity.

Instead, he was ready to walk away. "I was really and truly ready to quit right after the Breeders Cup,'' says Borel. "The heaving was taking so much out of me. I couldn't do it any more.''

Nineteen days after the Breeders Cup win he went down in a nasty spill and shattered his right wrist. Surgery was required and Borel was confined to a hospital for several days. He couldn't purge. "He felt good not heaving," Borel's wife, Lisa, told me last year after Borel won the Preakness on brilliant filly Rachel Alexandra. "And then in the hospital a nutritionist came to see him and said, 'You don't have to do this to yourself. There are other ways.'"

In the following days, Borel underwent a sort of nutritional rehab, slowly learning to eat small, nutritious meals. Few jockeys can eat what civilians would call "normal,'' meals. That is the curse of their profession (and often a dangerous one), but with his wife's love and assistance, Borel has since found a balance. He eats an egg and a little toast in the morning, then small piece of baked meat or fish and steamed vegetables at night. He still sweats in the jocks' sauna almost every day, cutting a last pound or two, but says he no longer purges.

"It changed my life,'' he says. "I feel stronger every day. I feel better.'' It's too simple to say that Borel wouldn't have won three Kentucky Derbies had he not stopped heaving. The reality is that he was a good rider even when he was throwing up his meals. But he might not have had the chance to ride those Derbies at all.

Now he comes to work and sees younger jocks flipping to preserve their careers. "I try talking to them,'' says Borel. "There's not much for me to say. I know it's hard, because I did it. If you love the game, you'll do whatever it takes to ride.''

A year ago Borel did a remarkable and unprecedented thing: He gave up the mount on the Kentucky Derby winner (Mine That Bird) to ride another horse (Rachel Alexandra) in the Preakness. And he won. He stayed on Rachel throughout a rigorous campaign that ended with her being voted Horse of the Year.

On Saturday, Borel will try to move Super Saver within one race of the Triple Crown. He has been a significant part of Super Saver's development. Trainer Todd Pletcher and WinStar Farm vice president and racing manager Elliott Walden both liked Borel as a match for the quick and feisty Super Saver because Borel has soft hands, the better for controlling a horse's speed without fighting him.

Recent history favors Derby winners in the Preakness (not so much in the Belmont, but let's not get ahead of ourselves). Borel was up on Super Saver for a light, three-furlong workout last Monday, a breeze that only deepened the rider's conviction. "What I really like about this horse,'' Borel said this week before leaving Kentucky, "Is that I think he's just peaking right now.''

And of course you could say the same thing about the jockey.

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