Those words were uttered by jockey Calvin Borel yesterday at Churchill Downs. They sound good, although if you think about it, doesn’t time actually mean everything, even for those of us not imprisoned? I’m not sure how much sense the statement makes, but it makes great sense to Borel, who has now been pitch perfect in winning back-to-back Triple Crown races, the first man ever to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on different horses in the same year.
The second of those, fabulous filly Rachel Alexandra, beat the best competition of her life to win the Preakness on Saturday. But she did not run her best. She won, on that day, because she was ridden by the best.
And because Borel, though he only went to school through the eighth grade, understands the inner workings of time and space on a race track.
“I’ve got a good clock in my head, that’s the main thing,” Borel said. “My brother made me carry a clock in my hand for three years when I started riding.”
Jockeys must have a feel for pace, distance and position. Borel exhibited a masterful command of all three in the Preakness.
Rachel Alexandra had to overcome a great many obstacles to win Saturday, beyond being a filly racing against the boys. She had to come back off a massive 20 1/4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks and a Beyer Speed figure of 108. Racing sense said that a bounce was coming, that there was no way she would build on that. She had, after that race, been moved to a different barn, working with a different trainer and exercise rider. Maybe those things don’t matter to animals. You watch them interact with their regular humans every day, however, and it makes you wonder.
She hadn’t run her best off just two weeks’ rest.
All of those, she overcame.
“That’s why you call her a race horse,” Borel said. “. . . Believe me you, that track, she hated it. She still won. She beat the boys. She’s a race horse.”
But she also got a great ride from Borel. Though his Derby ride, threading a needle with Mine That Bird along the rail in the stretch to pull the upset, probably received more rave reviews, Borel had just as much to contend with, even on the lead, in the Preakness.
We’ll get to the track. But first there was the gate. Situated in the No. 13 post on the outside of Pimlico’s narrow strip, Borel waited atop Rachel Alexandra as Big Drama bucked his rider in the No. 1 post and had to be backed out and reloaded. The minute or so that followed was an anxious one.
“She kind of got distracted,” Borel said. “I’m right on the outside track, the people are hollering, the track is really narrow so she’s kind of looking at them. When she broke, she wasn’t paying attention.”
Her first step was a stumble to the outside. And this is where Borel comes in.
“I knew she was good enough to overcome it,” he said. “So I just went ahead and let her go about her business, and got comfortable where I thought I needed to be going into the first turn so I didn’t get hung nine or 10 wide.”
Borel wasn’t afraid to use the filly’s speed early. And it wasn’t the last time he’d have to use it.
“That race, you didn’t see the real Rachel Alexandra,” Borel said. “She struggled so much. It was a totally different kind of track. She’d never been on that kind of track — like a sandy track. And she jumped high. I could never get her to level off. I even went a little faster than I had to just to try to get her to level off, you know, down the backside. The first quarter was good, but then down the backside, she wasn’t comfortable, she was trying to hard to get there, and that’s not her.”
With Borel managing her, letting her try to adjust to the sluggish surface on her own terms, she still looked to be leaping away from the field before Mine That Bird Made a final push that nearly caught her.
Borel said she “kind of struggled a lot” in the final 40 yards. He told NBC’s Donna Barton Brothers right after the race, “The track is so narrow here, and she went to pricking her ears so I had to kind of get into her because sometimes they’ll pull up, and you have to be careful about that.”
At Churchill Downs yesterday, thinking back on it, Borel said, “She won. But she’s a better filly than that. . . . We don’t know how good she is, and that’s very scary.”
Borel speculated that Pimlico’s track handlers, expecting rain before the big race, let the sandy track dry out as the day went on, with the result, in his words, being, “pretty heavy and very deep.”
Borel said, “She loves a hard, firm track. She loves to hear her feet rattle.”
The track at Belmont Park, however, is similar to Pimlico, according to Borel. “It’s probably the same surface,” he said, “but they can wet it and tighten it up.”
Borel wouldn’t come close to touching questions about what he thinks of Rachel Alexandra heading to the Belmont.
By yesterday, his focus was already back on the six races he was running at Churchill Downs. In fact, he won his first race back — from the rail.
When asked if he thought about taking the day off, he said, “No sir. Hell no.”
Then he explained.
“These are the ones that got me here, so that’s why I’m here,” he said. “If it wasn’t for people like Bub Bradley and Bobby Barnett and all these guys . . . I wouldn’t be here today. So I never take off. Even after the Derby, I don’t take off. I gotta be sick, crippled, crazy or blind before I take off. If I take off, there’s something wrong.”
But there’s nothing wrong with Borel these days. He’s at the top of his game and he knows it.
“I’m so confident right now,” Borel said. “I’m riding at the best of my ability right now. You wouldn’t imagine. I’m riding so good it’s unbelievable, it’s scary.”
And why is that, Borel is asked?
“Because I’m riding good horses,” he said. “That’s why. When it comes it comes. I’ve got good owners and trainers behind me now. We’ve been working hard for a long time. I give a lot of credit to Mr. Carl Nafzger for giving me that first chance to get there with Street Sense. I always knew I had the potential to get some horses there, it was just, ‘Give me the horse.’ You need some horse, no matter who you are.”
Borel has some now. And he’s giving them the rides of his life.