Monday, May 07, 2007

At least Calvin Borel won't break his leg on the racetrack ...

For much of the week that is known as the Derby Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, the focus leading up to the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby was not the horses who would be tromping down the homestretch at Churchill Downs, but rather the famous and infamous who would be attending the Run for the Roses. (The guest list lent itself to the beginning of a bad joke: "The Queen of England, O.J. Simpson, Larry Birkhead and the Playmate of the Year walk into a bar ..." ) But once May 5 arrived, there was a horse race to run - and boy, did Elizabeth II and the other 155,000-plus in attendance see one hell of a race, as favorite Street Sense rumbled from 19th place (out of 20 horses) to win the Derby going away. And just like that, we were plunged into the speculation that has surrounded every Derby winner of the past quarter-century - can Street Sense take home the first Triple Crown championship since 1978?

Whether Street Sense can win the Preakness in two weeks remains to be seen. What is crystal clear is that horse racing has yet another great story. Only this time, the story is about the jockey, not the horse. Those who watched the Derby, whether in person or on TV, will forever remember the emotional and triumphant reaction of Street Sense's rider, Calvin Borel, as his horse crossed the finish line in front of the pack. Usually Derby-winning jockeys are happy but sedate as they do their immediate post-race interview while still on horseback. Not Borel. This 40-year-old functionally illiterate veteran from Louisiana had become a self-made millionaire through a 25-year career that includes more 4,300 victories, but he had never won the Derby despite four previous mounts in the biggest horse race in the world. Upon succeeding on the fifth try, Borel was elated beyond belief, weeping in joy and hugging everyone he could see from his horse. He even stopped on the way to the winners' circle to give Street Sense an impromptu sponge bath - a refreshment that the horse seemed to greatly appreciate. All along the way, Borel gave full credit to his four-legged companion - and to his parents, and the older brother who raised him and whom Calvin helps muck out their stables nearly every morning. On the heels of the tragedy that was Barbaro last year, it was the type of shining moment that this sport needs to remain in the spotlight.

Calvin Borel wasn't aware that the Queen was watching his proudest professional accomplishment, but he sure knows it now. Tonight he and his fiancée will be attending the white-tie state dinner for Elizabeth at the White House. That should be kind of cool for him as well.

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