Borel and Pletcher: Match Made in Kentucky Derby Heaven
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There were two things trainer Todd Pletcher did before Saturday's 136th Kentucky Derby started that he'd never done before. He decided to watch the race on television in Churchill Downs' horseman's lounge reserved for luminaries of the afternoon rather than from a private box overlooking the track. That was where a television camera captured him thrusting his fist triumphantly into the air as one of his four horses, Super Saver, splashed down the homestretch for Pletcher's first win of our grandest horse race.
More substantively, Pletcher last November acquiesced to the suggestion of his boss, WinStar Farm vice president and racing manager Elliott Walden, and handed the reins for Super Saver to jockey Calvin Borel.
"That was my decision," Walden told me after stepping off the winner's dais at Churchill Downs early Saturday afternoon.
Pletcher never before entrusted one of his Triple Crown mounts to Borel, who is unquestionably America's favorite jockey who hasn't starred in a reality TV series. Borel also should be the favorite jockey of every owner and trainer who wants to win a Triple Crown, or at least the Derby.
After all, what Borel did Saturday in the muck that made up the most storied racetrack in our country was what he did last year and two years before that: win.
What he did Saturday was as improbable as what he did last year, when he took 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird to victory. In the 136th edition of the Derby, he took a winless Pletcher, who came in 0-24 in the Run for the Roses, to the winner's circle.
For Pletcher, Borel rode a 8-1 odds horse [bet down from 12-1 on the morning line] -- which brought a Texas gambler $900,000 on a $100,000 wager -- and credited Pletcher for making the horse a champion.
Borel didn't have to be so magnanimous. It was Pletcher who should have been and absolutely was excited to have been hooked up in a major race with Borel.
"We didn't want to handcuff him with too many instructions," Pletcher said of Borel. "We knew he would like the safe ground and the only thing I told him was, 'Ride him like you own him,' and, 'don't forget about getting a lead change.'
"He's [Borel] an instinctive rider and he knows this track so well. He knows the horse well. He's ridden him well each time he's been on him and it was as simple as that."
If it is as simple as putting Borel in the saddle of a potential Derby winner, then why hadn't Pletcher, an Eclipse Award winning trainer, given Borel one of his big mounts before? I didn't get a chance to ask Pletcher directly but the rumor on the backside was that the two had a falling-out over something.
Instead, Pletcher most often turned to jockey John Velazquez for some of his top mounts.
Velazquez, like Pletcher, won just about every major race in his career except the Derby. He was slated to ride another Pletcher horse, Eskendereya, the favorite going into Saturday, but Pletcher pulled the horse days ago after it suffered swelling in a leg. Instead, Velazquez was given the lone filly on Saturday, Pletcher's Devil May Care. She came in 10th.
"Well, a lot of times things work out for a reason, and we were concerned the first couple of days, Eskendereya didn't look like he liked a sloppy track," Pletcher said. "Who knows if he were here and healthy? This [Saturday] is Super Saver's day. He loved this racetrack. He liked it when it was fast, liked it when it was muddy. Sometimes things just work out.
"Obviously, we were disappointed not only for Eskendereya and us, but Mr. [Ahmed] Zayat [the owner]. It's been a tough couple of months ... this was his big horse and his big chance."
It just happened to turn out to be Pletcher's big horse, whether he knew he had the chance. Most observers didn't think so.
Super Saver wasn't a big part of the chatter around Churchill Downs the last couple of days, especially as the weather turned wet and muddied the track. They talked about Lookin At Lucky, which came in sixth. They whispered Ice Box, which placed, and Stately Victor, that came in eighth.
But if there is one thing we all should have learned last year it is that you should never discount a horse with Borel atop. I don't care if he's riding a three-legged mule nicknamed Lead Butt, Borel will have a chance.
"I said earlier in the week that Calvin Borel is a great rider anywhere he goes, but for some reason, at Churchill Downs, he's even five lengths better," said Pletcher, echoing an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em mantra. "He's just figured out Churchill Downs. He knows how to ride this track and gets along with this colt really well, worked him beautifully the other day, and in November."
November was when the group decided to use Super Saver with Borel in the Derby.
"Once he won on him, it's just a big edge," Pletcher said. "We were really happy to have him."
Someone asked Pletcher if he planned to run Super Saver in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 15.
"Well, we certainly hope so," Pletcher said. "Calvin already said he's going to win the Triple Crown, so I guess we'd better go there."
If Pletcher watches the Preakness from Pimlico's horseman's lounge, he will do so out of a newborn superstition. But his best lucky charm will be Calvin Borel.