Calvin Borel (on the rail) rides Super Saver to a win in the 2010 Kentucky Derby (G1) (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
Last week at Oaklawn Park jockey Calvin Borel put his name in the history books yet again with his 5,000th win. The only jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys in four years and one of only seven to win both the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks in the same year, Borel holds many notable accomplishments in his 25 years of racing.
Dubbed “Bo-Rail” by racetrackers, Borel has built a reputation for winning on the rail. He is fond of riding his horse very close to the inside rail, almost dangerously close. In this youtube video of the overhead camera from the 2010 Kentucky Derby, a race Borel won on Super Saver, you can see that he glues his horse to the rail and never lets go. When asked why he prefers the rail trip, Borel always answers “it’s the shortest way around the racetrack.” Mathematically this is correct, but there are plenty of reasons why every jockey doesn’t also choose this simple strategy, and still more non-geometric reasons why the rail may be a smart place to ride.
First off, let’s look at reasons why the rail may not always be a jockey’s first choice. For one thing, the rail isn’t a great place to close from, that is, to come from behind. A horse that saves its energy until the end often races on the outside where it will have a clear path to the finish line free of any traffic. A horse trying to close on the inside will often run in to another horse or group of horses blocking the way forward and need to lose ground navigating around them. The larger the field (like the 20 horse Kentucky Derby) the more likely the inside track is to be crowded. So the inside track favors horses that prefer to run in the front or close to it. This means running faster for longer, so again it puts a horse at risk of tiring out before the stretch.
A jockey like Calvin Borel likely prefers the rail trip because he’s confident he can handle traffic there better than most jockeys. Look back at that video of the 2010 Kentucky Derby and watch around 1:12 when he is forced to pull Super Saver away from the rail for a moment because of another horse in his path. In order to not slow Super Saver down and give up any ground he is forced to split an impossible needle and go right between two horses without slowing down. It’s a bold and dangerous maneuver that required him to keep his horse (and his own nerves) extremely calm. As soon as he’s through, he goes right back for the rail. It isn’t just a trick. Calvin Borel has been learning how to do this rail trip his entire career. Look at this article from 1991, long before “Bo-Rail” was a household name, where Andrew Beyer can only explain Calvin’s preference for riding on the rail on a perceived “rail bias.” Little did Beyer (or anyone else) know that the jockey he was watching was perfecting a method that would one day put him in the history books and atop some of the greatest mounts of his era.
BOREL WON THE KENTUCKY DERBY ON MINE THAT BIRD WITH A RAIL RIDE
Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
One can hardly blame Beyer, though. In those days “biases” were a big deal among handicappers. When I was a young boy first learning about horse racing and handicapping, I was taught by my father to always pay attention to whether horses were winning by “frontrunning” or “closing,” to determine if there was a track bias that favored one style over the other. For the better part of two decades (and in some circles perhaps still today) this was a major factor in handicapping races. There may have been something to it. At Pimlico in the 1980s it was so common for front-running horses, often on the rail, to win races more often than they should have that trainers whose horses preferred rallying from behind would often avoid racing at the track altogether. It was so bad that Gato del Sol, the 1982 Kentucky Derby winner, chose to not compete in the Preakness (thereby forfeiting the Triple Crown). The track surface had so much clay in it that the dirt was often packed very hard, making the surface very fast. The turns on that rack are also very tight, giving inside runners even more of an edge. The bias continued until 1986 when management tore up the track and re-did the surface.
The reason a hard surface helps horses who run in the front is that they have less resistance, therefore they get less tired as they run. This leaves little room for a late-closing horse to catch up to tiring front-runners. Often the rail can create this kind of bias based on how the dirt is packed on a dirt track. Whenever there is less dirt along the rail as there is in the center of the track, a horse can run faster than usual on it. Calvin Borel looks for these kinds of situations and takes full advantage of them. Combining his fearlessness, his talent for navigating traffic, and his knowledge of the racing surface, he is a one-man walking, talking bias.
Calvin Borel’s ability to win big races has earned him fame and fortune, but the Cajun son of Louisiana remains humble. In Joe Drape’s profile of him for The New York Times after Borel won his first Kentucky Derby in 2007, Borel said “You don’t forget the people who brung you here. Just cause I’ve gotten on a million-dollar horse doesn’t mean I can’t still get on a $5,000 one.”
Two more Kentucky Derby winners later, Borel has kept that attitude. The horse that brought him his 5,000th win last week, Hezunusal, was running in a $15,000 maiden claiming race. He broke from the 12th position, the extreme outside, and didn’t find the rail until the top of the stretch when he had the race in hand. Sometimes the best bias is just sitting on top of the fastest racehorse.
BOREL ON HEZUNUSAL AFTER THEIR WIN
Photo courtesy Coady Photography