LOUISVILLE, KY -- The way
Late Friday morning he was informed by the new connections of Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra that they would like Borel to continue riding the sublime three-year-old filly for the rest of the year. That would include the May 16 Preakness, which owner
Borel, whose epic, rail-hugging ride took 50-1 shot Mine That Bird to victory in last Saturday's Kentucky Derby (one day after he hand-rode Rachel Alexandra to a 20 ¼-length romp in the Oaks), immediately accepted. The horse racing historians at the Daily Racing Form have surmised that Borel will thus become the first jockey in the history of the Triple Crown to win the Kentucky Derby and take off that horse for a different mount in the Preakness.
It is a stunning choice that Borel viewed as a no-brainer. After working two horses early Friday morning for his trainer-brother,
To his everlasting credit, Borel, 42, said exactly the same thing 60 minutes after his Derby victory, even in the afterglow of an incredible win in the biggest horse race in the world. That took every bit as much courage as shoving Mine That Bird through a miniscule hole inside Join at the Dance leaving the eighth pole in the Derby, slingshotting horse and rider to a 6 ¾ length victory.
It was Borel's second Derby victory in three years. The last time he won the Run for the Roses he got invited to the White House. This time he got an invitation to appear on
Not just Lisa, but also
While Borel was working horses Friday morning, Hissam was working the barns and also working up a sweat. "How do you think I feel taking off the Derby winner in the Preakness,'' said Hissam, invoking the vernacular of the jocks' agent, where the agent talks like he is the rider.
"How many guys have done that?'' This was before he knew for sure that Jackson and Asmussen were going to keep Borel on the horse (Calvin does not usually ride for Asmussen) and before they knew for sure that the new connections were going to make a run for the Preakness. (Although everybody on the Churchill backside had a pretty good idea where the filly's saga was headed; whether she gets into the race is another matter. Keep reading.)
But Borel's unblinking certainty was the overriding factor for Hissam. "There's no doubt,'' Borel said. "I love that little colt in the Derby. Shoot, we won the Derby together. I couldn't believe it. I got to the three-eighths pole and I looked up and saw the way everybody was riding their horses and I thought, S---, we might win this thing. But this filly, she's something really special. If there's a choice, I'll ride her.''
Plenty of others were duly impressed after watching Rachel Alexandra work a half-mile in the weekend leading to the Oaks. "The only horse I'm worried about ran on Friday,'' said
"Rachel Alexandra is the freak of all freaks,'' said three-time Derby-winning trainer
Borel will surely be criticized by some. The quest for a Triple Crown has been horse racing's obsession for more than three decades, since Affirmed last pulled it off in 1978, the third time it was done in that decade. Since 2002 alone, four horses have won the Derby and Preakness and failed in the Belmont, leaving the racing game tantalizingly close to breaking the streak, but still unfulfilled.
Mine That Bird is still viewed by many as a fluke Derby winner. Not by cowboy trainer
It's easy in racing to give too much credit to the humans around the horse. But few times in recent racing history (I won't profess to take this back to the days of Citation or Seabiscuit) has a jockey meant so much to a horse. "You put another rider on that horse in the Derby, and he finishes 10th,'' said
Plenty of other racing people would reach the same conclusion. That was Borel's Derby, maybe even more than '07 on Street Sense. That, too, was a remarkable ride, but Street Sense was arguably the best horse in the race, as the improving Curlin had run just three races coming into the Derby. Mine That Bird ran way beyond his form in the Derby, but Borel had a whole lot to do with that.
And even if "Lil' Bird,'' as Funk lovingly calls him, won't be a heavy favorite in the Preakness (or the favorite at all), he would get plenty of support. Without Borel he will get less. As of Friday morning, Woolley said outside Barn 42 that he has "Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,'' for jockeys, but did not disclose names. Two backstretch sources said that veteran
Borel deserves nobody's heat for this move. He sat on Mine That Bird twice, for a morning breeze five days for the Derby, and for the Derby itself. He has been linked to Rachel Alexandra since November, and he has never lost on her. He has used the whip on her only once, two smacks last November the first time he rode her. She has won five consecutive races by more than 43 lengths and her performances have been stunning. There are fair questions about the level of her competition, but not her speed or class.
Which is precisely why it was stunning to some that managing half-owner
In fact, it was just a good business decision by a good horse businessman. "I'm in the horse business, I'm not a hobby guy,'' Morrison told SI.com Friday evening. Rachel Alexandra is named for his 13-year-old granddaughter, but when Jackson and his representatives came calling early this week, it wasn't that difficult to take his emotions out of the picture. (It was hardly Morrison's first chance to sell. The ubiquitous horse hunters from IEAH Stables had come calling last year, and once Rachel Alexandra began winning stakes, says Morrison, "I couldn't hardly eat dinner without getting phone calls from bloodstock agents. Most of them would ask "What's your price,' and I would say, 'You don't have a client, yet, do you?' And they didn't.''
But Morrison understood that there is a time when a horse's value might --
Jackson came calling four days after the Oaks. "I suggested a pretty good number,'' says Morrison. "They tried to bring that number down a little bit. I said that's the number. They have a lot of money. And they agreed to it.''
What was that number? Morrison and Jackson signed a confidentiality agreement. One published report set the sale price at between $3 million and $4 million. "That's laughably low,'' said Morrison. "It wouldn't pay the tax on the sale.'' Backstretch sources, not always reliable on any issue, set the sale price at between $10 million and $12 million. "You keep guessing,'' said Morrison. "I'm a man of my word and I promised I would not reveal the price.''
On Thursday morning, Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, walked 100 yards to Wiggins's barn, retrieved Rachel Alexandra from Stall No. 17 and led her back to his barn. (Wiggins, 66, was saddened, but realistic. "It's a business,'' he said. "And she's in good hands with Steve and Scott. They're good horsemen.'' Wiggins's staff was crestfallen. He met with them later that day and when a new horse came in on Thursday, Wiggins made sure to put that new horse in Stall No. 17, so it didn't sit empty, staring back at the help.)
One hurdle remains to getting Rachel Alexandra into what suddenly becomes a hugely intriguing Preakness (at a struggling racetrack with a bankrupt owner), and not just because the Derby winner is trying to take the second step toward that elusive Triple Crown. (NBC must be thrilled beyond description, not only because of the battle of the sexes, but also because if Rachel wins, Belmont broadcaster ABC/ESPN might have a rubber match but no Triple Crown try).
The Preakness field is limited to 14 starters. Since Rachel Alexandra was not nominated for the Triple Crown races -- intentionally, Morrison does not believe in running fillies against colts in the spring and did not want to be tempted -- Jackson will pay the $100,000 fee to supplement her into the race. However, if 14 horses who are nominated to the Triple Crown enter the race, Rachel Alexandra would be the first bumped out.
(One theory on that: Team Jackson has considerable resources; they could perhaps entice another owner to drop out of the race. There is no evidence that this would happen, but it's racing, and far stranger things have happened ... like a bunch of guys in black cowboy hats commuting from New Mexico in pickup trucks and a horse van with a funny-footed $9,500 yearling and winning the Kentucky Derby. Two other asides on that. One: Standing outside the barn Friday,
Back to racing: Jackson offered to pick up the cost of bringing Morrison and his family to the Preakness (and the Belmont, should it come to that). Morrison will pass. "I'll watch it on television,'' he said. "I'm almost burned out at this point.''
Calvin Borel, on the other hand, is not. He is at the top of his game and at the center of the stage. And he is a week away from a moment that no jockey has ever experienced.