Last summer, the sports world was dragged--nauseatingly and unrelentingly--through the most high profile free agent process in the history of professional sports during the LeBron James saga. When James finally announced "The Decision" to play for the Miami Heat to millions on national television, most of us were happier to finally have it over than we were at finding out what teamed he chose to play for.
That kind of ridiculous hoopla could never happen in horse racing, but there is a potentially interesting jockey free agent drama setting up for the Kentucky Derby. It involves Calvin Borel, who has won an unprecedented three of the last four Derbies and is as good a rider at Churchill Downs as anyone in the world.
Borel is the regular rider of Elite Alex, who finished fourth in last weekend's Louisiana Derby and third in the Southwest Stakes prior to that. He has been committed to the colt all winter, but with only $65,000 of graded earnings Elite Alex is currently on the outside looking in for the Derby and must finish first or second in the April 16 Arkansas Derby to qualify--if he even runs at all.
On Tuesday morning, Elite Alex's trainer Tim Ritchey said no decision has been made on whether his colt will start in the Arkansas Derby. It will all depend how the horse does on the track over the next few days, Ritchey said.
"I'm not going ruin him just to run in one race; it's a long year," Ritchey said. "There are a lot of options. He's a Canadian-bred, so we have the option of the Queen's Plate as well. There is no reason to rush into anything right now. We'll see how he does."
Assuming that Elite Alex does not run in the Arkansas Derby or does not finish in the top two if he does start, Borel would instantly become the LeBron James of the Kentucky Derby. Or, at least, that's what one would think. But according to his agent, Jerry Hissam, the phone has been surprisingly quiet.
"I haven't had one phone call so far," Hissam said. "Usually, you like to have three or four eggs in your basket by now, but that isn't the case."
Is it possible that Borel, a man with more than 4,800 lifetime wins, more wins at Churchill Downs than anyone in history except for Pat Day, and who has skillfully guided three of the last four winners on the first Saturday in May, could wind up without a mount for the 2011 Kentucky Derby?
"It would be the most embarrassing thing to happen to me in 40 years if we were sitting in the jock's room without a mount on Derby day," Hissam said.
Hissam said Borel is committed to riding Elite Alex in the Arkansas Derby and beyond, if it happens, but a Plan B or C has not been worked out. He is not exactly panicking just yet, however, as things have a way of playing themselves out on the Derby trail. And if he wont say it, let me say it for him: The world would have to go off its rocker for Borel to wind up without a mount in the Derby.
What are some logical options for Borel if Elite Alex doesn't make it? One would be J P's Gusto, who was ridden most recently by Ramon Dominguez to a seventh-place finish in the Rebel. J P's Gusto has plenty of earnings to get into the Derby from his success as a juvenile and it would seem that Dominguez would be more inclined to choose to stay with Stay Thirsty or Brethren. A 2010 Eclipse Award winner, Dominguez will ride Stay Thirsty in this weekend's Florida Derby and be the likely rider for Brethren in the Arkansas Derby. He would probably stick with one of those two horses for the Derby.
If Dominguez does choose Stay Thirsty, that also leaves Brethren without a rider--if he earns his way into the Derby. Borel would be a logical fit, being that he guided Brethren's half-brother, Super Saver, to a win last year's Derby. Super Saver and Brethren are both owned by WinStar and trained by Todd Pletcher. Makes sense to me.
Another possibility could be Astrology, the second-place finisher of last weekend's Sunland Derby. Julien Leparoux rode him in that race for Steve Asmussen, but he is committed to Dialed In right now. Assuming Dialed In stays on the Derby trail, Astrology seems like another logical choice for Borel. Asmussen and Borel don't team up very often, but you never know.