By Tim Layden
May 09, 2009

LOUISVILLE, KY -- The way Calvin Borel sees it, one of the toughest decisions in the history of thoroughbred horse racing was really no decision at all.

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 Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen intend to enter if Rachel's Monday work in Kentucky goes well.

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, Cecil, Borel stood outside Barn 36 on the Churchill Downs backstretch and shrugged his shoulders to a reporter. "I got no choice,'' he said. "This filly is the best horse in the country. She's the best horse I've ever been on.''

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 Leno Monday night. Borel and his fiancée, Lisa Funk, will fly out for the show. And that is not the only offer: "The phone has been ringing,'' said Borel Friday morning. "I let Lisa handle all of it, and I worry about riding horses.''

Not just Lisa, but also Jerry Hissam, who has been Borel's only agent. They have been together for more than a quarter-century, since Borel was tearing up the tracks in Louisiana as a teenaged bug boy straight from the Cajun bush tracks.

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 Derek Ryan, the Irishman who trains third-place Derby finisher Musket Man, who is also a likely starter in the Preakness.

"Rachel Alexandra is the freak of all freaks,'' said three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose Pioneerof the Nile finished second to Mine That Bird in the Derby, left in Borel's slipstream.

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 Chip Woolley, who said yesterday, "I didn't expect to win the Derby. I thought we could finish in the top 10. But I knew my horse was the best he's ever been.'' For those willing to autopsy Mine That Bird, video of his last two races before the Derby -- a second and a fourth at Sunland Park in New Mexico -- shows that he made a sustained run in each race, but that he made it much too soon. In the Derby Woolley gave Borel only one instruction: "Wait.'' (Woolley, 45, is one of five children. He has a younger brother named Wildon. That's Wildon Woolley. Which has nothing to do with Rachel Alexandra, Calvin Borel, Mine That Bird or the Preakness, but I could not resist writing it).

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 Hal Wiggins, the trainer who lost Rachel Alexandra to Asmussen at 5:15 Thursday morning.

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 Mike Smith, another patient rider who won the 2005 Derby on 49-1 shot Giacomo, was Plan A. That would leave Mine That Bird in very capable hands.

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 Adolphus Morrison, a 75-year-old retired steel executive from Alabama (who now lives in Columbia, Mo.), decided to sell the filly to Jackson.

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 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 -- might -- not go any higher and to gamble that it will go higher is a very high-stakes game. "I recognized that this was a prime time to market her,'' says Morrison. "She was already worth many times more than she had been only a few races earlier. I felt that it was no longer prudent to risk any of the things that could happen. I didn't want to wait for a filly injury.''

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, Mark Allen, one of Mine That Bird's co-owners, was asking where Jackson made his money. First in real estate law, then in wines, Kendall-Jackson, he was told. "Kendall-Jackson?'' asked Allen. "Well, then, I about made him rich by myself.'' Two: I asked Allen if he wanted to address the stories that have surfaced since the Derby, outlining his father, Bill's role in the Sen. Ted Stevens Alaska scandal, in which Bill Allen took a plea bargain that included immunity for his children. "I knew it would come out,'' Mark Allen said. "I just want to say my father is a good man.''

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.

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