The Kentucky Derby can be won long before the first Saturday in May and far from the lights that bring an ancient sport in from the darkness each spring. It can be won in the breeding shed, or it can be won in the sales ring. It can be won late at night in a tavern where one horse trader sells his stock to another out of avarice or desperation. And it can be won when a man punches 10 digits into his BlackBerry, raises the phone to his ear and asks for a little help.
Last November trainer Todd Pletcher, winner of four Eclipse Awards and zero Kentucky Derbys (0 for 24 in nine races since 2000), was at his office on the backstretch at Belmont Park outside New York City, putting together the pieces of his coming Triple Crown season. Among his many contenders was a horse named Super Saver, who had raced three times from August through October and would soon be shipped to Kentucky to run in a stakes called the Kentucky Jockey Club on Thanksgiving weekend at Churchill Downs. Pletcher needed a rider for that race, so he called Jerry Hissam, the longtime agent for jockey Calvin Borel.
This is the same Calvin Borel who had won his first Kentucky Derby with a breathtaking rail-hugging ride aboard favored Street Sense in 2007 and his second last year—at age 42—with an even more harrowing inside trip on 50--1 shot Mine That Bird. Pletcher is a meticulous man who trains for some of the wealthiest owners in the world and whose next bad hair day will be his first. He does not act lightly. Yet there is an almost mystical connection between Borel and the Derby, and maybe it was time for Pletcher to get a piece. "It was in the back of our minds," Pletcher says. "We were thinking, Calvin would be great to put on a horse with Derby prospects."
Late last Saturday afternoon Pletcher was in another office at another racetrack, just off the paddock at Churchill Downs, watching on television as Super Saver won the 136th Derby. In a box above the finish line, Pletcher's 72-year-old mother, Jerrie, squeezed the blood from the hand of Chris Cagnina, a friend of Pletcher's from their college days at the University of Arizona, while urging Super Saver home. More than 155,000 spectators, soaked by daylong rains and now in unexpected sunshine, watched Borel again seize the rail from the greatest jockeys in the world, riding short while they all rode long in the slop ("We know he's coming, and we still keep letting him through," said Mike Smith, who rode 12th-place finisher Jackson Bend) and flashing beneath the wire 2½ lengths clear of Ice Box.
May 9, 2010
On the infield grass, en route to the trophy presentation, Borel reached down from the saddle and screamed at Pletcher, "Give me a shot!" and then smacked the trainer's right hand with his own. Pletcher, who does not do public emotion, then embraced another old college friend, Scott Beahm, and called him by his nickname, Goat. "He didn't say a lot," said Beahm. "But you could tell he was like, I did it!"
This was the Derby that Pletcher, 42, was supposed to win, fully validating a career whose roots lay in the summers of his youth, when he traveled the racing circuit from Texas to Nebraska to California with his father, Jake, also a trainer. But Todd wasn't supposed to win with Super Saver or with Borel. He had come to Louisville with a brilliant 3-year-old named Eskendereya, the blowout winner of two Derby preps and the subject of Triple Crown buzz. "The truth is that some of the horses we've taken over there probably didn't belong in the Derby," said Pletcher nine days before the race, "but Eskendereya is absolutely the best horse we've brought to this race."
On the Sunday before the Derby, however, Eskendereya was pulled from the race with swelling in his left foreleg. Pletcher was still left with six possible starters (he settled on four), but none appeared to be at Eskendereya's level.
The result was a wide-open race. Lookin At Lucky, trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, went off at 6.30--1, the biggest-priced favorite in Derby history. Super Saver was bet down to the second choice, at 8--1. No horse went off at longer than 32--1. Among the starters were Noble's Promise and Paddy O'Prado, with 35 owners between them, and Make Music for Me, whose trainer, Alexis Barba, tended to the Oakland A's mascot—a mule named Charlie O. (after eccentric owner Charlie O. Finley)—in her teens. "He was a very big mule," said Barba during race week, "but very well-behaved."
Borel's week had gone from good to controversial. He won five races on Saturday, April 24, but six days later he was beaten aboard 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the La Troienne Stakes, Rachel's second consecutive defeat. Asked after the race if Borel would ride Rachel in future races, owner Jess Jackson said, "That's not decided, of course."
The Derby was another matter. Super Saver was bred and is owned by WinStar Farm of Versailles, Ky., a high-powered operation started in 2000 by wealthy Texas racing fans and longtime friends Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, who first met in 1970 when they tried to claim the same horse at now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha. Like Pletcher, WinStar endured 11th-hour disappointment, as potential Derby starters Endorsement (injury) and Rule (Pletcher's decision) could not race.
Borel rode Super Saver to a five-length victory in that Kentucky Jockey Club race last November, a performance so impressive that it prompted Hissam to tell Pletcher, "We're gonna break your Derby maiden." Borel missed the colt's third-place finish in the Tampa Derby on March 13 while riding Rachel's 2010 debut in Louisiana. But the jockey was back aboard Super Saver for his second-place finish behind Line of David in the April 10 Arkansas Derby and also for a critical four-furlong workout on a sloppy Churchill track seven days before the Derby. "He loved that work," said Borel's wife, Lisa. "He loved the way the colt relaxed for him."
Borel's ride in the Derby was less dramatic than his two previous wins (in both cases he was more than 20 lengths behind and passed 18 horses to win) but eerily similar in one key aspect: He again did it from the tight rail, swinging outside to pass tiring Conveyance just as he reached the top of the stretch before diving back inside Noble's Promise. Borel was not just inside but nearly brushing the metal fence. "You've got to be ballsy to go down there like that," said Baffert, who trained Conveyance in addition to Lookin At Lucky, who was bounced around and finished sixth. "But the way he rides, he keeps a good horse out of trouble."
Borel's repeat rail success was as inexplicable to professionals as to fans. "He's very blessed, I'll say that," said Nick Zito, the trainer of Ice Box and Jackson Bend.
"He's the king," said jockey Robbie Albarado, who finished 14th on long shot Dean's Kitten. "He's more comfortable down there [on the rail] than anybody else. And you've got to have the horse, which he did." That horse will go on to the Preakness, the 32nd Derby winner with a chance for racing's Triple Crown since Affirmed last won it, in 1978. Super Saver will prove himself either a rare champion or a fortunate mudder with a jockey touched by fate.
Borel, who ceased heaving (vomiting to lose weight) only four years ago and now follows a strict diet, rode the race immediately after the Derby (finishing third of nine on a horse owned by Jackson) before going into the jockeys' room. Sitting at his cubicle, Borel was cooled by cold towels and given water to drink. Only then did he speak at a press conference. He is the first jockey to win three Derbys in four years, and for the third time in four years he was prodded to explain a style that is more instinctive than cerebral. His best answer was this: "I was born to ride, sir."
Pletcher, meanwhile, was true to his own form, attending a postrace party at the Kentucky Derby Museum only briefly before rushing back to his barn to share the victory with the dozens of workers in his employ at Churchill. The racing family at Barn 34 used blacksmith's pliers to yank the tops off beer bottles and ate from a makeshift buffet laid out on equipment trunks. Super Saver poked his head out from a stall. As darkness fell on the Downs, Pletcher stood in the middle of the crowd and raised a beer to the sky, toasting a long journey ended and the little man who brought the Derby horse home. Again.
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This was the Derby that Pletcher was supposed to win—but not with Super Saver or with Borel.
Borel was prodded to explain a style that is more instinctive than cerebral. His answer: "I was born to ride, sir."