Calvin Borel, the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey whose career will resume Aug. 27 at Ellis Park, says he wasn't ready to retire when he left racing for almost five months, quitting for what proved the wrong reason.
“This is a business you can't have one foot in and one foot out,” he said. “I felt like I had one foot in and one foot out. I wasn't giving it 110 percent like I know I can.”
In an interview this week at Churchill Downs with The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and an Ellis Park publicist, Borel acknowledged that he wasn't riding well when he abruptly quit in late March, uncharacteristically not filling already-scheduled mounts and workout assignments.
Borel said he was conflicted because his then-fiancee and girlfriend of 15 years, Lisa Funk, who took Borel's name, wanted him to quit riding and return to central Florida, where she was working with hunter-jumpers.
Borel said his head wasn't in the right spot amid the fraying relationship, which impacted his riding.
“I was riding bad, making bad decisions in races. We weren't getting along,” he said. “She was in Florida and I was in Arkansas. I said, 'That's it, I'm going to hang it up, go to Florida with her, be there for a while and see how things developed.' … I was supposed to quit – and I can't.”
Borel said he initially enjoyed buying young horses and developing them into hunter-jumpers, but ultimately found the process too long and boring compared with the constant action in horse racing.
“I just wasn't happy,” he said. “I thought I would have been at first with her jumpers and stuff. But it's a different culture, slower. It's not like the racetrack. I like pressure. In jumping there's no pressure, everybody is laid-back. It's different in racing. No matter if you're in a $5,000 race or a million-dollar race, you want to get to the wire first.
“I love to work, and I'm healthy. Stay healthy, that's what I want to do, and ride some horses — and try to get a couple of good horses. Have fun; I've got to enjoy the rest of my life. I worked hard to get where I am and to be happy. My family told me, 'If that's going to make you happy, go ahead and do it. Because you're not happy now.' So I left Florida and we went our different ways. I just wasn't happy. I wanted to come back to ride. This is what makes me happy. I love to ride.”
Borel said he didn't return phone calls at the time of his sudden retirement because he didn't know what his future would be.
“I didn't quit because I wanted to,” he said. “I quit because the circumstances. I didn't quit because I was scared…. That's why I didn't go out and tell everybody, that I'd quit and thrown it in. Because I knew I didn't quit for Calvin. I quit for somebody else, and I didn't like it…. It slowed down so much. The more I got into it (developing show horses), I couldn't see a future. We actually did good, bought some and sold them. At first that was fine, but it would take so long.”
Borel said he doesn't expect to have trouble getting business. “People don't forget,” he said. “Frank (Bernis) has my 'book' and I think we're going to do good. We're going to take it slow, starting out at Ellis, and go from there… I've been getting on some nice 2-year-olds for Buff (Bradley) and different people.
“I thought about it a lot,” he said of his return. “Instead of messing around, (thinking) 'If I'm going to do it, I need to do it now, with the 2-year-olds coming around.' Every jock's dream is to ride the Kentucky Derby. You just want to ride, much less win it… Day by day, I kept saying, 'Look, Calvin, the first Saturday in May is getting close. You need to make up your mind if you're going to ride.'
“I'm so happy when I'm here. These are my people, my family, really….. I've been all over, all over the world. There's nothing like the racetrack, Churchill Downs (is) my house, that's where I belong.”
Borel — whose 1,189 Churchill Downs victories trail only Pat Day's 2,482 — said the biggest thing he missed about riding races was “the challenge.”
“To find a good horse and get out there and win,” he said. “There's nothing like getting to the wire first. You get the feeling that you're incredible and look what you accomplished…. Now it would be different if I had to (retire). If I had to, I think I could walk away, if I was really hurt or something wasn't right with my body. But I'm just too healthy.”
Borel said he can't wait to see the fans at Ellis Park, where he was the leading rider in 1995 and 2011. He last rode at Ellis in 2014, taking last summer off.
“I love my fans,” he said. “They mean a lot to me…. These people (at Ellis), they love me so much. That's when you know you're appreciated, and it's hard to walk away from that.”
He marveled at the meet that has played out this year at the “Pea Patch.”
“The caliber of horses – I've seen some maidens that really, really impressed me big time, where I think they could go anywhere and win. Considering 15 years ago what I used to ride for there, the purses are good, but the company is tough. To me, some of those horses could go to Saratoga and win.”
While spending two weeks in New York, Borel attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, not only as a 2013 inductee but to watch 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra – whom he early on said was the best horse he ever rode — be enshrined. Borel guided Rachel Alexandra to a record 20 1/4-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks, after which she was sold and subsequently won the Preakness, Monmouth Park's Haskell and Saratoga's Woodward, the latter against older males.
“I sat there about an hour and a half and just watched replay after replay,” Borel said. “Brought back some good memories. Unbelievable. My girlfriend said, 'You want to find (another) one like that?' I said, 'Yeah, baby, it took me 30 years to find one like that.'”
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