The national media types can't get enough of Calvin Borel.
Catahoula and St. Martin Parish's now-most-famous product has already made a splash during Jay Leno's last week as "Tonight Show" host. He's on David Letterman's show Friday night, one day before he goes for a piece of sports history at Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
CNN has a feature running in regular rotation. Thursday morning he'll ring the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange. Most of the Northeast's major newspapers are following his every move this week. And when the Belmont is over, "60 Minutes" will be shooting a segment for September airing - and it won't include any ambush interviews.
They're eating it up in the Big Apple.
"It's like any track," Borel told the media horde when asked about his limited experience at Belmont Park (seven career races). "You just turn left."
"He's just a happy camper," he said of Mine That Bird, his mount for Saturday's final leg of the Triple Crown. "We want a happy horse."
"There's more stop signs on one corner than the whole of Catahoula," he said to a writer after visiting Times Square shortly after his arrival in New York Monday.
It all comes out in this thick Cajun accent, one that you wouldn't expect from a body that small. And the words aren't fancy ... it's pretty much what you'd hear when friends gather at any small town or crossroads in rural South Louisiana.
The small-town act has always played well in the big city, especially when the act also happens to be one of the best at his craft in the world. Thing is, it's no act.
There aren't many more genuine human beings around than Borel, who is poised to stride unquestioned into the Racing Hall of Fame if he can guide Mine That Bird to a win over the mile-and-a-half Saturday. He would become the first jockey to win the three Triple Crown races on different horses, after bringing Mine That Bird from last to first in the Kentucky Derby and guiding filly Rachel Alexandra to a win in the Preakness.
Call it the Calvin Crown, because it'll probably be at least a century or so before such a thing happens again. By then, the only things that won't have changed are the small-town values that Calvin's parents Clovis and Ella instilled in their five siblings ... the same values passed down from Calvin's grandfather, who also passed down the land where the French-speaking Clovis labored to raise sugar cane and corn.
"We were born and raised in Catahoula, way out in the boondocks, about eight miles from the nearest town (St. Martinville)," said Cecil Borel, the second-youngest of the clan but still 12 years older than Calvin (hence the nickname "Boo-Boo"). "You had to go far to get anywhere, even to the store, so we usually wouldn't go anywhere.
"We worked hard. We didn't have much, but what you had was yours and we were happy with what we had. We don't have much education and we're not proud of that. But we are proud of what we've done."
Cecil is now a Kentucky-based trainer, and was a good enough rider to lead the standings at tracks in Louisiana and Chicago before changing sides of the horse business and imparting what he'd learned to his baby brother. And when he's mucking out his Churchill Downs stalls it's usually Calvin who's there helping. ... the same Calvin who was back on the workout track hours after his wins at the Derby and the Preakness. One day after his Preakness win, he was back at his Churchill Downs home base and won a $7,500 claiming race, after working out other lightly-regarded horses earlier that morning.
"These are the horses that got me here," Borel told The Associated Press.
For years, they were the only mounts Borel could get on a regular basis. He has over 4,600 career wins, enough to rank him 31st in thoroughbred history, but virtually none came in "name" races until the last three years. He didn't win a Grade I stakes race until 2006.
Borel was saddled with the "regional jockey" moniker until he rode Street Sense to a 10-length win in the 2006 Breeders Cup Juvenile. Less than a year later, he was on Street Sense for a memorable come-from-behind Kentucky Derby win.
But that win paled in comparison to this year's Derby, when he pushed what was originally a $9,500 yearling purchase past 18 better-known horses in the final half-mile of the most memorable Derby in history.
When 50-to-1 longshot Mine That Bird won the Derby, suddenly people realized that Borel was a lot more than the guy who feasts on the $5,000 claimers, and deserves to be mentioned among the sport's elite.
"Go look at the standings right now at Churchill Downs," said Jerry Hissam, Borel's longtime agent and close friend after the Preakness win. "We're third in the standings, but the basic payoff for horses that Calvin rides is $25.80. To me, that proves one thing ... when you put him on a horse, you've got a chance."
It's hard to argue with that. When Borel won the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs a few years ago, his horse paid out $58 on a $2 bet. Two years later, he won the Arkansas Derby on a 109-to-1 shot. His win a couple of years later in the prestigious Stephen Foster Handicap paid betters almost $200.
It doesn't have to be a super horse for Borel to shine. Nobody's putting Mine That Bird in the "super" category, and there's not much debate over the fact that Borel is the only reason that Mine That Bird won the Derby.
Put it in terms that mean something. If you've bet Borel consistently through his career, especially on the longshots, you've made money. And that's the bottom line.
Except to Borel. You get the idea from people around him that he'd rather win races than enjoy the fruits of those wins. The money is only a by-product of a life that's begging for a movie to come along.
"Finishing first in a race means way more to him than whatever he's getting paid," said fiancÃ©e Lisa Funk.
"I'll never forget where I came from," Borel said. "You can't. Riding is all I've ever wanted in my life. This is all I've ever dreamed about. Horses are everything to me."
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