A jockey can change what he does from race to race, but not who he is. Even before Calvin Borel knew how to ride a horse, he knew exactly where he planned to ride nearly every one of them -- along the rail, if only because it's the shortest way around every oval. Never mind that even a single slip-up down at the bottom of the racetrack can ruin your day, not to mention the rest of your life. Borel made peace with that risk-reward factor a long time ago. So if nothing else, that should make this Preakness a true test of just how great a rider he has become. Because no matter how loud his instincts are screaming, the last place Borel plans to be late Saturday afternoon is in that well-worn groove. "It's a different style, I guess," Borel said about his bread-and-butter tactic. "But you have to have the horse to get through there. At Churchill Downs, you can be along the rail. Somewhere else, you don't want to be along the rail, no sir." And what about here at Pimlico? Borel looked up and slowly shook his head from side to side, almost mournfully. "No, sir," he said. At midday Friday, several hundred fans were lined up in the grandstand at Pimlico for an autograph session featuring Borel, a half-dozen other Preakness riders, and the same number of former great female jockeys. Being a celebrity is still new to Borel, who at age 43 is closing in on 5,000 career wins, yet was largely ignored by elite owners and trainers until almost four years ago. In short order, he rode Street Sense to victories in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in the fall of 2006 and then again the following spring in the Kentucky Derby. Since then, Borel has wrapped his hands around nearly every big prize in sight: two more Derbys, a Preakness and the Kentucky Oaks aboard filly Rachel Alexandra. Still in the saddle atop Super Saver and fresh off his latest Derby win, he guaranteed the big bay colt would end thoroughbred racing's 32-year wait for another Triple Crown champion. "He's the 'now guy', there's no question about that," said D. Wayne Lukas, who will send Dublin to the post and leads all active trainers with 13 Triple Crown wins. "He's riding with such confidence. He's always been very confident, but he's riding with extreme confidence right now. He thinks he's invincible." The funny thing is Borel felt that way almost from the beginning. He grew up in that part of Louisiana known as Cajun country, which also produced jockeys Randy Romero, Kent Desormeaux, and Shane Sellers. His brother, Cecil, was 12 years older and already training when the only duty Calvin could be entrusted with was walking horses around the barn. One day, Cecil started lining up barrels in Calvin's path, forcing his kid brother and the horses to go wider and wider. "I was taught everything before I knew how to really ride and before I even got on a horse," he said. "That helped me a lot, made me come a long way." Most trainers consider jockeys a necessary evil, one step up the evolutionary ladder from the beasts they ride. Some trainers, though, aren't convinced it's a full step. "There's no use giving them instructions," the late Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham once complained, "because by the time they go from the paddock to the race track, they've already forgotten them. There's a reason why jockeys wear size 3 1/2 hats." But Borel gets more respect than most. Trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Lookin At Lucky and has won eight Triple Crown races himself, had no problem switching jockeys from Garrett Gomez in the Derby to Martin Garcia here. But when a rider is at the top of his game -- the way Borel is at the moment -- even topflight trainers know enough to keep those instructions to a minimum. "Some guys try riding down there, bump off the rail and don't go back. It takes real nerve, but he's got a knack where he can really get a horse to really relax. Calvin just gets that loop and gives it this," Baffert paused, pretending he was holding the reins, "and next thing you know they're just galloping along free and easy. "The definition of a great rider is a guy who keeps a good horse out of trouble. A lot of guys don't learn that until they get older. They get that confidence going and it translates to the horse. They feel fear. They feel when you're scared. But Calvin is fearless," Baffert added. "He's like that guy from Avatar. He just plugs in and goes wherever he wants." Stopping Borel from doing just that is practically the mission statement for all the other riders in this race. The scuttle on the backstretch barely 24 hours from post time is that Desormeaux, a fellow Cajun who will ride Paddy O'Prado, will do most of the early work. "He'll be watching Super Saver. That's going to be his target," Baffert said. "I think Kent will probably start the tempo and the rest of us will have to fall into it." If any of that talk is bothering Borel, he isn't letting on. He's patiently signing autographs, smiling broadly from beneath a black satin baseball cap with "Super Saver" stitched across the crown in gold letters. An athlete's life rarely peaks in middle age, but Borel's did. It hasn't changed his crazy work ethic -- he still rides full cards nearly year-round, besides working horses most mornings -- nor dimmed his love for what he does. "I maybe say things that I shouldn't -- that I'm going to win it. But if you're going to ride, why don't you want to win it?" he said. "C'mon. That's me." With that, Borel flashes that wide grin one more time, suggesting that behind it sits a guy who knows that every once in a while, taking a different route is the only way to get where you want to go. ------ Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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