Calvin and Rachel: A Love Affair

Calvin Borel, following several minutes of hugs and high-fives from fellow jockeys, valets, and jocks room attendants, finally made it to his locker following his victory aboard Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes. He raised both hands and slammed them down on his bench, then let out a short single shriek and said, “That is a runnin’ mother!” Poetry comes in all forms of expression, and Borel and Rachel were pure poetry that day.

Borel, who announced his retirement this week, will always be known for winning the Kentucky Derby three times in four years; the only jockey ever to accomplish that feat.

But he also will be known as the only jockey to win the Kentucky Derby and then take off the Derby winner in the Preakness in order to ride a filly. Although that normally would seem like a bold, and perhaps foolish move, the truth is, no one was surprised in the slightest at his decision. The reason for that is pretty simple. The filly he chose to ride at Pimlico was Rachel Alexandra, on whom he had just won the Kentucky Oaks by a staggering 20 1/4 lengths, eased up the entire length of the stretch. Preceding that were easy scores in the Fantasy Stakes, Fair Grounds Oaks, Martha Washington Stakes, and Golden Rod Stakes. Since Borel first started riding her, she won five consecutive stakes by an average margin of 8 1/2 lengths.

But something happened after the Kentucky Oaks that would cause him many hours of anguish. Rachel Alexandra was sold and turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen, whose main rider was Robby Albarado.

Borel had his Derby winner, Mine That Bird, locked up for the Preakness, but when he found out Rachel was being pointed for the second leg of the Triple Crown, so many thoughts started swirling around in his head.

Am I going to keep the mount on Rachel? Am I actually going to have to take off the Kentucky Derby winner, who still had a chance to sweep the Triple Crown, especially after his explosive victory at Churchill Downs that shocked the racing world?

It would be arguably the most unorthodox action ever taken by a Kentucky Derby-winning jockey. But there was one factor that explained such a bold move. He was in love with Rachel Alexandra.

“Calvin has always been in love with this filly,” his wife Lisa said at the time. “She was all he kept talking about after he started riding her. Then when she was sold after the Kentucky Oaks and Calvin didn’t know if he’d be riding her in the Preakness or if Steve would go to his main rider, Robby Albarado, he kept having dreams about her and talking in his sleep. He’d blurt out, “Filly … boys … Baltimore … I don’t know … lead … Robby.”

The drama had begun five days after the Kentucky Derby, when majority owner Jess Jackson announced he and Harold McCormick had purchased Rachel Alexandra from breeder/owner Dolphus Morrison and Mike Lauffer, and planned to run her in the Preakness. That news was received with trepidation by Borel, who was well aware Albarado was Asmussen’s go-to rider, having ridden two-time Horse of the Year Curlin for the same connections.

Borel heard about the sale the same day he received the check for his winner’s share of the Kentucky Derby purse. The following morning, he went to Asmussen’s barn to let him know he would love to stay on Rachel Alexandra.

“He would have torn up the check if it meant he could ride Rachel back,” Lisa said. “He’s been in love with her since the first time he rode her. Money doesn’t mean that much to Calvin; he just loves riding horses and winning races.”

When Asmussen and Jackson offered Borel the Preakness mount on Rachel, he followed his heart and gave up the mount on the Derby winner to ride the “best horse” he has ever ridden. All he had to do now was break the news to Mine That Bird’s trainer Chip Woolley, who, while disappointed, understood Borel’s decision and quickly secured the services of Mike Smith for the Preakness.

History will show that Rachel, breaking from the 13-post, rushed to the lead, then battled on the front end before opening up on the field and winning by one length over a fast-closing Mine That Bird, becoming the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and the first horse to win the Preakness from as far out as the 13-post.

Borel was effusive in his joy, as he led Rachel back, saluting the fans, who gave him a rousing ovation, as he rose in the saddle and pointed to Lisa in the grandstand; something he always did after a big victory. In the jocks room, his agent Jerry Hissam received a phone call from Chip Woolley asking him to “congratulate Calvin” for him.

Getting dressed, Borel’s biggest decision was trying to decide which Rachel Alexandra hat to wear. When the replay of the race came on, Borel watched the start with keen interest, pointing out how his filly was compromised when she ducked out. But once she got into her rhythm, Borel began riding her all over again, shouting “go, big momma” at the screen.

Lisa explained why Calvin would point to her. “He’s telling me, ‘I told you so; I told you I could do it’” she said. “He’s saying, ‘If you want something bad enough, go out and get it.’”

Borel was known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, bursting into tears after a race or getting choked up talking about his parents, both of whom are deceased. Borel was seen after the Kentucky Derby throwing rose petals up toward the heavens.

“Calvin is a very emotional person,” Lisa said at the time. “He lives and breathes this. To achieve the thing he wants most in life brings him to tears. His parents never told him ‘no.’ They never insisted he stay in school or that he’d never make it as a rider. They always told him, ‘If you want to be a jockey then do it. You have the talent and if you work hard enough and keep your eyes focused on it there is nothing in this world you can’t achieve. Do what makes you happy, even it means riding $5,000 horses the rest of your life.’”

Borel has endured the hard life of a jockey. He began flipping (inducing vomiting after eating in order to maintain his weight) when he was 15 and only stopped in 2006 after undergoing surgery on his wrist. During his career, he broke 34 bones in his body; he had a plate in his right wrist, secured by eight screws; he had his spleen removed, and he had plastic ribs on one side of his rib cage.

“He’s been busted up so many times, yet he still always goes for that hole,” said Hissam following the Preakness. “He’s amazing. After winning the Oaks on Friday and the Derby on Saturday, he worked two horses on Sunday morning. He never complains and that’s why the Good Lord has blessed him. We haven’t had two cross words in 19 years.” Add seven years to that number.

Following a 19 3/4-length stroll in the park in the Mother Goose Stakes, in which she ran the 1 1/8 miles in a sizzling 1:46 1/5, despite being eased up the entire length of the stretch, Rachel faced the boys again in the Haskell Invitational.

She demonstrated her true greatness by coasting through the slop to annihilate Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird by six lengths in 1:47 1/5, a fifth of a second off the stakes record and two-fifths off the track record set by Spend a Buck.

As Rachel opened up in the stretch and flew past the finish line, Lisa stood by the rail motionless, her hands up against her cheeks. Then it all sank in and the tears began streaming down her face.

“It’s amazing,” she said, barely able to speak. “I never thought Calvin would ever get a horse like this. I’m more emotional this time because I wanted this one so badly for her.”

A short while later, Lisa was able to gather her thoughts. “I think I have my emotions in check now,” she said. “You just can’t believe she does the things she does. Your jaw drops, because it’s not supposed to be that easy. For Calvin to wind up on a horse like this, who they’ll be talking about 30 years from now, is unbelievable.

“He’s just crazy about her. After the Mother Goose, we went out to dinner and had a bottle of wine, and we were laughing, and I said, ‘So, is it me or Rachel?’ It was like Sophie’s Choice. ‘If I had to leave or you had to get off Rachel, which would it be?’ He thought about it for a few seconds and said, ‘Don’t make me choose.’”

Borel’s career is over, burning a path along the rail at Churchill Downs that carried him to three Kentucky Derby victories and the nickname Bo-rail. Rachel went on to defeat older males in a gut-wrenching stretch run in the Woodward Stakes, in which Borel had to paste her a number of times with the whip, and, like the horses who took turns looking her in the eye that day, she was never the same. But what will be remembered is her indomitable courage that day and the deafening cheers upon her return that had the old Saratoga grandstand shaking like it never shook before.

Retired to Stonestreet Farm, Rachel had to undergo serious abdominal surgery, suffering an infection after producing a 140-pound filly by Bernardini. Rachel survived and her filly, later named Rachel’s Valentina, went on to capture the grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga and finishing second to the brilliant undefeated filly Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Also at that Saratoga meet, Rachel’s first foal, Jess’s Dream, made his career debut and rallied from 18 lengths back to win by a length in an excellent 1:49 for the 1 1/8 miles

Borel continued to ride, but after winning his third Kentucky Derby the following year, he never came close to that amazing run from 2007 to 2010. Despite his three Derby victories, Borel’s name will forever be linked to Rachel Alexandra, in what truly was a love affair.

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