I should have known better. With all the variables in play at the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, I should have gone with the jockey who never wavered. Calvin Borel followed the riding manual this year, just as he’d done in two Derby wins in the previous three years – get to the rail and stay there – and it worked yet again. Borel guided Super Saver along the muddy-soaked rail and into Derby history.
Coming down the homestretch, no horse was distinguishable. Each appeared splattered with peanut butter from the sloppy track. Mother Nature had made life difficult for the 20 horses in the race, dropping several inches of rain the previous evening. The weather combined with the poor post positions of the favorites had all the pundits calling it a wide-open affair. And so it was. Super Saver took the rose blanket, followed by Ice Box and Paddy O’Prado.
Whatever lingering frustration and depression trainer Todd Pletcher had after having to scratch the odds-on favorite, Eskendereya, a week before the race, were likely erased when Borel guided Super Saver across the wire first in 2:04.45. At least that’s the feeling I got after seeing Pletcher’s double-fisted arm pump and awkward grin on the television set at Dive Bar. It was a very similar reaction to the one after Eskendereya won the Wood Memorial back in early April, cementing that colt as the Derby favorite.
It was a different jockey and different horse that delivered Pletcher from his PESD (post-Eskendereya stress disorder). Super Saver’s win took Pletcher out from behind the reputation that had been haunting his career: the big-money trainer who could never win the Derby. He was 0 for 24 coming into this race. He had believed Eskendereya, that “special horse,” would be the one to break the curse. Even with the special horse out of the race, Pletcher still had four others to look to for potential glory.
Borel and Super Saver ran the race everyone should have expected a Borel mount would ride. Starting from the No. 4 post, he went straight to the rail, among a group of three horses that pinched off the racing space for the favorite, Lookin At Lucky. Just as he’d done in his previous Derby wins, Borel got the rail and kept it. Even as Super Saver slipped from second back to seventh, the two stayed on the rail. They reclaimed the lead on the homestretch, nearly 300 yards from the wire and didn’t let it go. Borel’s trip proved a simple one. Off the rail, moves were being made in the traffic jam that was the pack. Garrett Gomez got Lookin At Lucky to make a push from the back of the pack up to the leaders, but the colt had to work hard every step of the way, draining precious speed and energy. The pair ended up sixth.
After the race, Borel bounced along on the back of Super Saver, his grin, even during an interview, never ceased. He waved to the crowd, stoop in his stirrups and held three fingers high into the sunny sky. His feat was an impressive one. His three Kentucky Derby wins places him in good company, with the likes of Angel Cordero, Jr. and Gary Stevens. Only three jockeys have won the Derby more than three times: Eddie Arcaro (5), Bill Hartack (5) and Bill Shoemaker (4).
On this day in Kentucky, the history didn’t really matter. It was one race with one winner. Any of the 20 could have had its day and its glory. Borel doing what Borel has done proved the best bet.