Robby Albarado & Calvin Borel

Horse racing stories usually focus on a single horse’s feats, rivalries between horses or the relationship between a horse and its mount. But the story of 2007, centers on two Louisiana jockeys from Acadiana. On the first weekend in May, St. Martinville native Calvin Borel rode Street Sense to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, Robby Albarado of Lafayette took the Preakness Stakes atop Curlin, edging out Borel and Street Sense by the length of the horse’s head. In an instant the two became national stars, and it appeared as if a rivalry between the jockeys, who are now based in Louisville, Ky., was apt to erupt. Instead, the deep friendship the two have shared since their days of racing in Shreveport blossomed and another chapter was added to the state’s rich racing history.

Borel has collected roughly 5,000 wins in his 25-year career. Albarado, who turned professional in 1990, has more than 3,000. But no year has been better for either than 2007, a year of good fortune, personal and professional highlights.

“Winning the Kentucky Derby, the biggest race in the world, is every jockey’s dream,” Borel says. “It’s an amazing opportunity just to ride in it and we won. Only one person can say that each year.”

“It’s been unbelievable, surreal,” Albarado says of his first-place finish at the Preakness, his second-place finish at the Belmont Stakes and third-place finish at the Kentucky Derby. “I’ve had a great year. But it’s not only me, so has Calvin.”

Their friendship, forged through competition and similar upbringings, grew stronger in 2007, in spite of the intense bright lights, glamour and attention that turned their way. Both riders aspired to be jockeys before they were in grade school. Each grew up working on farms and racing at bush tracks in south-central Louisiana. They climbed up the racing circuit at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, Delta Downs in Lake Charles and Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, where they became close friends.

“It was like I had known him for years,” Albarado says. “We became really close friends from that point on. He helped me with a few things along the way. He’s benefited me quite a bit.”

The friendship between the riders is evident when they talk about their accomplishments and the way they competed at the year’s major races. Although he reached the apex of his career at the Preakness, Albarado says it was marred because of the way Borel lost.

“In a way [winning] was bittersweet,” Albarado says. “I was at my highest point and Cal was at one of his lowest [coming so close to winning the second leg of the Triple Crown].”

Borel says Albarado deserved the win and described racing against him this year as “awesome.”

“Me and Robby have been very close friends for years,” Borel says. “If I can’t win, I want him to win. We’ve had a good time together. It’s been a good year for us.”

From Acadian sugarcane fields to the twin spires of Churchill Downs Borel, 41, grew up on a sugarcane farm and helped his father and brothers train quarter horses on the side. The youngest of five sons, he began cleaning stalls and galloping horses before and after school. At 8, he began riding horses at local bush tracks and found his calling.

“I wanted to ride,” he says. “I knew from day one, maybe when I was 4 or 5. I wanted to be a jockey. My parents saw that and they supported me. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Borel dropped out of school in the eighth grade in order to race full time. He moved in with his older brother, Cecil, a trainer and former jockey, who mentored him. He taught him how to care for horses, assess their abilities, notice their tendencies and, most importantly, how to race. What book learning he may have lacked were made up with hard work and long hours at the track. Soon he was a regular rider at Evangeline Downs and went on to be a three-time riding champion at Delta Downs and Louisiana Downs and a two-time champ at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park (in 1995 he dethroned racing legend Pat Day, who had won every meet at Oaklawn since 1982).

“Cecil was like a second dad to me. He took me under his wing and helped me,” Borel says. “There were times when he was very rough on me. But he’d been through the good and bad and he wasn’t going to let the bad happen to me. There are so many riders who come and go so quickly. He kept me straight. I thank him for that every day.”

In what has become a definitive moment in his career, Borel took a horse wide, attempting to make a pass on the outside. But his horse couldn’t catch the leader and lost. After the race, Cecil made Calvin walk around their barn. Each time Calvin made a lap, Cecil pulled barrels away from the walls to make each lap wider and longer.

“He’s always been like that. He didn’t yell or scream but he made his point,” Borel says.

Calvin learned his lesson and adopted a strategy of running his steed as close to the rail as possible. His signature style earned Borel several victories and the moniker “Bo-rail” from his fellow jockeys and racing enthusiasts. It was that technique that helped him win the “Run for the Roses.”

After winning the Derby, Borel was invited to the White House for a state dinner honoring Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on her May visit to the U.S.

“It was awesome, unbelievable really,” Borel says. “Not too many people get to do them things. I shook hands with the president and the queen. They both congratulated me and wished me success. I went to shake his hand after and he gave me a hug. It was a great, great honor.”

In addition to meeting the president and the queen, Borel met another dignitary from south Louisiana. At the dinner, he and his fiancée, Lisa Funk, were seated at a table next to Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.

“We got a chance to visit. He asked me all about the Derby and I asked him all about the Super Bowl.”

It must have been a scene, the 5-foot, 4-inch, 116-pound jockey standing on equal ground with the 6-foot, 5-inch, 230-pound New Orleanian, chatting about winning the biggest events in their respective sports.

“It was really cool,” Borel says. “You can’t even imagine.”

Peaking at the Preakness
Winning the Preakness two weeks after being edged out at the Derby was easily the high point of Albarado’s career. His horse, Curlin, was predicted to win the Derby but finished third.   

“It was amazing, especially beating the horse that just won the Derby. Anytime you beat a champion like that it always feels good,” Albarado says of the photo finish. “Everybody doubted Curlin after he lost but he did a whole lot in a short period of time. He followed up a flat race with the biggest of his career and knocked off the best horse in the country.”

Albarado, 34, says he remembers wanting to race horses his entire life.

“It’s my earliest memory, maybe when I was four, five, six years old,” he says. “I started with basics: cleaning stalls, walking horses and doing whatever it took to be close to it. Eventually I graduated to galloping horses when I was 9, 10 years old. From that point on it’s all I wanted to do.”

Albarado was considered a strong up-and-comer who appeared destined for success at racing’s top levels but a rash of major injuries threatened his career. He twice fractured his skull in 1998 and ’99, which required doctors to remove a portion of his skull and insert a titanium mesh and polymer plate in his head. A fall in late 2000 kept him sidelined for most of the ’01 season. Though the injuries could have been catastrophic setbacks, Albarado says they helped him focus on becoming a better rider.

The injuries “actually helped in a lot of ways,” he says. “Any time you get injured, you go through a growing experience. It made me appreciate my health and taking care of myself. It also made me appreciate my success more.”

In 2003, Albarado rode Mineshaft to victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The following year, a nationwide pool of jockeys voted him winner of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award as the rider whose career and personal character reflect positively on themselves and the sport. He finished third in the Derby in 2006, aboard Steppenwolfer, and was the favorite to win it this year. He again finished third. But stormed back to win the Preakness before losing by a nose to Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown.

“It’s been an amazing year,” he says. “I never thought on January first that I’d have such a good year. You wonder at the beginning of the year but this has passed all expectations.”

South for the winter

After preparing for the Breeders’ Cup race in November, it would be back to Louisiana for a couple of weeks vacation before winter meets kick-off across the South.

Borel headed home to visit his mom in Acadiana before going to Hot Springs, Ark., for the winter meet at Oaklawn Park.

“We make it back as often as we can, every four or five months,” he says. “It’s important for me and my fiancée to go often. I try to keep a close relationship with Louisiana.”

After a few weeks off Albarado would head to New Orleans to race the winter meet at Fair Grounds Race Course, where he is a six-time riding champion.

“I love coming to New Orleans. It’s always a good time for me,” Albarado says. “I get to come home and see all my friends and family that I grew up with.

“I was there last winter and we had a good meet. The city’s coming back strong. I had a home there that went underwater but I rebuilt. I’ve been to a Saints game. I enjoy my time in New Orleans. Boy, I miss New Orleans when I’m away.”

Albarado says he’s expecting good things in the coming years from the Crescent City and Fair Grounds, which was taken over by Churchill Downs Inc., just before Hurricane Katrina.

“The Krantz family did a great job when they ran it. They’re very passionate about horse racing. But CDI is an established name with a great record,” he says. “They raised purses and now they’ve incorporated slot machines which will generate better purses. They want to take it to another level. They want to make Fair Grounds the premiere track for winter racing. That’s good for horse racing not just in New Orleans but for Louisiana, too.”

While both jockeys are looking forward to their upcoming meets, they says they’ll look back fondly on the success they obtained in 2007.

“The Kentucky Derby is a milestone,” Borel says. “It puts the light on you. It’s opened up my story and where I came from. But tomorrow’s another day, another race and I’ve got to go to work.”

“We’re getting great opportunities,” Albarado says. “On any given day there’s not much that separates jockeys on this level. Over the years we’ve gotten better races, better horses and now it’s paying off for us. Being that both of us are from southern Louisiana makes it even more special.”