Working on the rail all day pays off for Borel
To most people, the running of the 136th Kentucky Derby looked like utter chaos. Horses were struggling to cope with the sloppy track. Horses were getting bumped and jostled and blocked at every stage of the race. After a fast early pace, the leaders were slowing so abruptly that they presented obstacles to all the runners behind them.
But Calvin Borel was unfazed by the tumult, because he approached this Derby, like most races, with a clarity of purpose that has helped make him the country's most recognized jockey. His plan was simply to get his mount Super Saver to the rail and stay there as long as he could.
Borel's ride was the decisive element of the Derby; few knowledgeable observers would argue that Super Saver won because he is clearly more talented than all of his rivals. He was one of a dozen contenders who appeared, on paper, to be evenly matched, and if this Derby were run again it would probably produce a different result. If it were run with one change of jockeys -- with Borel on Ice Box instead of Jose Lezcano -- then the stretch-running Ice Box might have been draped with a blanket of roses.
Borel's victory wasn't a dramatic one like his daring, rail-skimming ride on Mine That Bird last year, or his charge from 19th place on Street Sense in 2007, because everything seemed to fall neatly into place for him this time. Super Saver had been fortunate to draw post position 4, with three relatively slow horses inside him and a battalion of speedsters to the outside. Borel made no secret of his plan; he would secure his position on the rail and then let the other speed horses zip ahead of him if their jockeys were bent on going fast. He was confident that Super Saver -- who once had looked like a one-dimensional speedster, too -- was tractable enough to sit behind the leaders.
He never wavered from his plan even when the rain fell Saturday and many observers -- such as ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey -- maintained that the rail at Churchill Downs was the worst part of the track. Some jockeys said the same thing. But Borel won two races on the Churchill card prior to the Derby by staying on the inside, and he saw no reason to stray from his stay-on-the-rail philosophy.
Conveyance shot to the lead in the Derby, running the first quarter mile in a swift 22.63 seconds, with Sidney's Candy pressing him. Borel positioned Super Saver on the rail, a few lengths behind the pacesetters, in perfect striking position. "I had him where I wanted," Borel said.
When the leaders collapsed, Borel went around the retreating Conveyance, moved back to the rail and passed Noble's Promise, who had briefly inherited the lead. Super Saver couldn't have had a cleaner trip.
Many other horses had problems. Favorite Lookin At Lucky was bumped hard early and never got into contention. Third-place Paddy O'Prado ran into traffic in the stretch and jockey Kent Desormeaux said, "If I got through, I probably would have won." But it was Ice Box who had the most serious trouble of all.
After running next-to-last for the first six furlongs, trainer Nick Zito's colt started to accelerate near the rail. He had quickly moved past several horses, including Lookin At Lucky, when Lezcano saw the yellow silks of Mission Impazible directly in front of him. Mission Impazible took a stride toward the rail, and Lezcano decide to go outside him -- a fateful decision. Mission Impazible immediately moved back outside -- into Super Saver's path. If Lezcano had held his inside position just a moment longer, he might have had a relatively clear path to victory. That's what Borel, with his single-minded focus, might have done. But as soon as Lezcano committed himself to go outside, the 25-year-old's Derby turned into a fiasco. With horses strung across the track in front of him, Lezcano was stopped cold for a stride or two, and he couldn't find an opening through which to accelerate. He had to keep moving farther and farther to the outside until he was the widest of all 20 horses in the field. When Ice Box finally had clear sailing, he outkicked everybody else -- but it was too late to catch Super Saver.
This trouble doesn't mean that Ice Box is the most talented horse of this group or that he is likely to win the Preakness. The fast pace made this Derby a perfect set-up for stretch-runners like him. (Lightly regarded Make Music for Me rallied from 20th place to finish fourth.) The result confirmed the pre-race impression that, after the injury to the star colt Eskendereya, this is an unexceptional group of 3-year-olds and none has a significant advantage over the rest.
Super Saver's winning tine of 2:04.45 was the slowest since 1989. The Churchill Downs racing strip was slow, of course, but even when the track condition is taken into account, the race still produced a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 104, the second-lowest for the Derby in 20 years. When there is no horse in a field who can impose his superior talent, races are often won by the horse who gets the best trip. In three out of the last four Kentucky Derbies, that horse has been the one ridden by Calvin Borel.