A bay filly was born in late January 2006, her dam's first offspring. She would be named Rachel Alexandra, after the granddaughter of her owner. It was much too early to know that she would someday be great. In that same year a jockey was thrown from his horse on Thanksgiving Day, shattering his wrist and imperiling his mount on a potential Kentucky Derby favorite for the upcoming spring. His name was Calvin Borel, and he was already 40 years old. It was much too late to suggest that he would someday stand at the top of his sport.
This is an article from the May 25, 2009 issue
Last Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. She won with Borel sitting on her back. He became the first jockey in history to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the same year on different horses, and he did it with his long-shot Derby winner, Mine That Bird, validating himself by desperately chasing the filly under the wire in second place. "The filly is incredible," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, "and the Derby winner is the real deal."
The racing game is defined by chance—the odds blinking on a tote board, the tiny opening between horses that invites a jockey to endanger his life by squeezing through, the allure of a well-bred yearling that tempts an owner to buy. "We all hope for the right timing," says trainer Hal Wiggins, 66, the first man to saddle Rachel Alexandra in a race. They all hope to take the right risks.
A retired Alabama steel executive risked holding onto Rachel Alexandra as an unraced 2-year-old, then sold her for crazy money 10 days before the Preakness. A 79-year-old billionaire lawyer-turned-winemaker bought the filly and risked running her against colts just 15 days after her stunning romp over fillies in the Kentucky Oaks. Borel risked jumping off the Derby winner and onto Rachel Alexandra for the Preakness, an all-or-nothing play that was at least as bold as his rail-scraping ride on Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs, but which he saw as no decision at all. "I got no choice," Borel said eight days before the Preakness. "She's the best horse I've ever ridden."
Filly and rider put on a show at Pimlico, a crumbling, toe-tagged monument to bygone days that nonetheless delivered an afternoon of singular drama. Borel executed the polar opposite of his Derby ride, winning from the front two weeks after chasing from the rear. Rachel Alexandra wired a good field of 3-year-olds under breakneck pressure on a track surface she didn't like.
In the aftermath owners promised to consider a rematch in the June 6 Belmont Stakes, where the only Triple Crown at stake will be Borel's—the Calvin Crown. Borel fell into the arms of his fiancée, Lisa Funk, on a balcony overlooking the Pimlico track, crying on her shoulder as fat, cold raindrops fell from a dark sky. "All that emotion," Funk said to Borel, patting his back. "Just let it out."
Dolphus Morrison, 75, a native of Ensley, Ala., who made his money in the steel industry, prides himself on producing racehorses from nontraditional pairings. Wiggins puts it more bluntly: "He likes cheap matings." Morrison bred and owned filly Lotta Kim, who was sired by the unappreciated stallion Roar, and when Lotta Kim's racing career was cut short by a hip injury as a 3-year-old, she was retired. Her first progeny was named for Rachel Alexandra Doisy, Morrison's now 13-year-old granddaughter.
Morrison breeds all of his horses with an eye toward selling them. "This isn't a hobby for me," he says. "I'm in the horse business." In August 2007 Morrison sent Rachel Alexandra to Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas, where Jimmy (Scooter) Dodwell broke her in. In November of that year Morrison called Dodwell and asked if Rachel was ready to be entered in a Florida sale.
Dodwell wasn't so sure. Rachel Alexandra was one of the best young horses he had seen. "She had a ton of speed, with a long stride, and [I thought] she might be able to run forever," recalls Dodwell. "I stuck my neck out and told Mr. Morrison, 'You might want to hang onto this one.'"
In May 2008 Rachel was transferred to Wiggins at Churchill Downs. She showed promise in training, but won just two of five starts under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Wiggins had used Borel to work Rachel and considered a change.
Borel—friends still call him by his childhood nickname of Boo, short for Boo-Boo because he was born long after his next-youngest sibling—started riding on Louisiana's bush tracks before he was 10. He dropped out of school in eighth grade. "He was a natural rider," says former trainer Virgil (Yu Yu) Blanchard. "Nine years old and he stayed so calm on those horses." Borel was racing professionally at 16, having developed into a solid rider, just below the very top. Then in the first week of November 2006 he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Street Sense at Churchill Downs, establishing that horse as the Derby favorite.
Nineteen days later Borel went down on a 3-year-old gelding named Pew and shattered his right wrist. He underwent surgery to implant eight screws and a plate. More significant, during his hospital stay he stopped the forced vomiting—flipping, in jockey parlance—that he had used to control his weight for more than two decades.
"He felt good not heaving," says Funk. "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.'" Funk started cooking healthier meals for Borel, and 11 months shy of his 41st birthday, he stopped flipping. (Borel still sweats off excess pounds every day in the jocks' steam room.)
Borel won the 2007 Kentucky Derby on Street Sense and that year rode the entire lucrative Saratoga meet for the first time. But he still didn't crack the top echelon, and instead became known for tirelessly working horses every morning and riding cheap long shots in the afternoon with the same fearless vigor as expensive stakes horses. Last Nov. 29 Wiggins put Borel on Rachel Alexandra for the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs, and she set a stakes record while winning by 4¾ lengths. The filly, always with Borel on board, has not lost since.
Morrison had numerous chances to sell Rachel Alexandra, but he didn't crack until Jess Jackson, 79, who founded the Kendall-Jackson winery, called him after Rachel won the Oaks by 20¼ lengths on the day before the Derby. "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." (Morrison and Jackson have not disclosed the amount of the sale. Morrison told SI that a reported figure of $3 million to $4 million "wouldn't pay the tax on the actual cost." Wiggins, who was not privy to the exact price, said he had been told it was "10 to 12 million dollars.")
The sale was jarring. Jackson transferred Rachel to his regular trainer, Steve Asmussen. At 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, May 7, Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, walked Rachel the 200 yards from Wiggins's barn to Asmussen's. Wiggins and his staff were crestfallen. "The whole crew was walking around with their heads down," says Wiggins. "I called them together and said, 'Hey, we had a lot of fun with her. Sun's gonna keep coming up.'" He also immediately put another horse in Rachel's number 17 stall, so that his staff didn't have to look at an empty spot.
Morrison had said he would not run Rachel Alexandra against colts in the Triple Crown, but Jackson expressed a desire to enter the filly in the Preakness. "It's the only way we'll get to see her reach her full potential," said Jackson. "This way she has a chance to be a true champion." (He also would like to breed Rachel to Curlin, his '07 Preakness-winning colt.) Before gaining entry into last Saturday's race, Jackson and Rachel had to survive an unseemly attempt by several owners to block her entry, which was possible because the filly had not been nominated to the Triple Crown. Beyond that, after Eight Belles's death in the '08 Kentucky Derby, red flags are raised whenever fillies race colts.
Borel, meanwhile, worried that Jackson and Asmussen would pull him off the filly in favor of their regular rider, Robby Albarado. On the afternoon of the sale Borel collected his Derby-winning share of $141,720. Then he called Funk and told her, "I never thought I'd be holding a check for this much money and crying." Twenty-four hours later Borel's agent, Jerry Hissam, was informed that Jackson and Asmussen didn't intend to make a jockey change. Borel said he would ride her instead of the Derby winner, an unprecedented decision.
On the Wednesday before the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra drew the far outside post in the 13-horse field. Some saw this as useful for the filly. "I'd rather see her down inside where we kick some dirt in her face and push her around," said Gary Stute, who trains Papa Clem, who was fourth in the Derby and would finish sixth in the Preakness. Borel turned anxious, bearing the weight of the highest-profile dice roll any jockey had ever made. "We slept on opposite sides of the bed," said Funk. "He was just testy."
No need. Pimlico was calmed by a no-BYOB rule that reduced attendance from last year's 112,222 to 77,850, and Rachel arrived ready to perform. The outside position allowed Borel to utilize Rachel's quickness and athleticism—astounding in a big, tall filly—to take the lead, just two paths wide into the first turn. Even while running a crisp 46.71 seconds for the first half mile, fighting for the lead with Big Drama and struggling to take hold of the deep track, Rachel stayed relaxed. Into the stretch she opened a four-length lead and seemed poised to romp.
But Mike Smith, replacing Borel, had cranked Mine That Bird off the turn. He split horses heading for home and even checked up briefly when bumped by Pioneerof the Nile. "Son of a gun is the most athletic thing I've ever been on," said Smith of Mine That Bird. He was just a length shy at the finish, in a race that's one-sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby.
As she jogged back to the finish line, Rachel Alexandra was wildly cheered, a second Triple Crown race in which a horse vividly connected with the people. Borel was applauded by his peers when he walked into the jockeys' room an hour after the finish. He popped open a low-carb beer as his cellphone buzzed with more congratulations. "Boo might not be too smart," he cackled into the phone, "but he knows what he's talking about when it comes to horses."
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