NEW ORLEANS — A milestone wasn’t achieved at the Fair Grounds Thursday, but a great deal of respect was paid to a horse-racing legend in his homecoming.
Catahoula, La., native Calvin Borel, who has ridden three Kentucky Derby winners in the past six years, flew to New Orleans from his current home in Louisville to compete in two races at the Fair Grounds Thursday. At stake was a career milestone that only 25 jockeys in North American thoroughbred history have achieved — 5,000 wins. Borel entered Thursday’s festivities with 4,998 victories, making his two races here potential blockbuster ones for his career.
Unfortunately for the legendary jockey, he finished third in both contests, first aboard Ferrous Farms’ Belong to B’sal in the third race, then on Mt. Brilliant Farm’s Boss Man Rocket in the sixth race.
Although Borel — who endeared himself to the Crescent City racing community when he rode 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra to the 2009 Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks and Grade I Kentucky Oaks — would have to wait for the 5,000-victory milestone, he’ll have another chance to reach it on Dec. 28, when he returns to the Fair Grounds after several weeks of rest.
“I’m going to Florida and then I’m going to be with the wife, take a little break for Christmas, and then I’ll go to Hot Springs,” he said. “But I’ll be back here on the 28th.”
With his third-place finish in the sixth race of the day, Borel’s hopes for win No. 5,000 in his home state evaporated, but he said after the roughly 5.5-furlong turf sprint that he’ll keep working with Boss Man Rocket, who could deliver the jockey his milestone victory down the road.
“I’ve been working with him, and the colt’s been working good,” he said. “I’m trying to get him to relax and finish up a little bit. I got him back today, and he finished, but he didn’t finish as good as I though he would. No excuse, but I think he’s a little bit better horse than that, and we’re going to find out later in the year that he is. We’re just kind of working for him now.”
Borel’s presence at the Fair Grounds Thursday helped draw a higher-than-normal attendance for a weekday, and it generated excitement both in the stands and in the Fair Grounds offices.
“Being a Louisiana native, he’s special to a lot of people here,” Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager of Racing Eric Halstrom said of Borel. “After winning three (Kentucky) Derbies, having him back in town got everyone excited. He’s certainly a celebrity on national level, and it’s great to have someone like him here.”
In Thursday’s sixth race, Borel was beaten by Shaun Bridgmohan, who triumphed aboard Saturdayatbernies and who frequently rides with Borel at Churchill Downs. Bridgmohan isn’t daunted by Borel’s legend, but he definitely appreciates it.
“Calvin is a great rider,” Bridgmohan said. “But it’s just all in a day’s work. He’s trying to get the accomplishments we want to do. He’s trying to do the same thing we’re trying to do, and that’s win races.”
When Borel does hit the 5,000-win mark, he’ll join fellow Louisianian Mark Guidry in that exclusive club. Guidry, a regular at the Fair Grounds’ winter meets, rode several mounts himself Thursday, and after the eighth race, his last of the day, Guidry lauded Borel for all the Catahoula native has accomplished.
“It’s a huge milestone,” Guidry said of the 5,000 mark. “Calvin is such a great gentleman and has had such a great, great, great career, (5,000 would be) one more thing on his list of achievements.
“He’s had a great career,” Guidry added. “All his life he’s been a hard, hard worker. Everything he’s earned in his career, he’s deserved, and I love him to death.”
Guidry, one of only nine active jockeys to have 5,000-plus wins in their pockets, said reaching that elusive level takes, above all, patience.
“You’ve got to be smart and lucky,” he said. “You see a lot of these young riders, they think today is their last day. I see a lot of young riders put themselves in bad spots. They ride three or four years and get all cracked up. You’ve just got to be smart and give yourself an opportunity to come back here tomorrow.”