By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Long before winning the Kentucky Derby, meeting the president and dining with the queen, Calvin Borel was a cult hero at Churchill Downs.
And as much as the 40-year-old jockey of Derby winner Street Sense would like to pin his popularity on his tireless work ethic, his jubilant post-victory celebrations or his Cajun accent that remains thick years after he left his Louisiana home, Borel knows his appeal is much more basic.
"All the crowd loves me because my horses pay megabucks when they win," he said.
That's usually been the story for Borel. He grew up on the bush tracks in Louisiana and has spent most of the last two decades developing a reputation for showing up early, staying late and turning long shots into sure shots.
"This is my game, what else am I going to do?" Borel said. "This is all I've ever wanted."
Maybe, but after more than 4,000 wins - many of them providing shrewd or brave investors with a hefty payday - Borel longed for a chance to get on a horse capable of winning his sport's biggest race.
"All I asked is that God give me a chance to be five or less to one," Borel said.
Opportunity came in the form of Street Sense, a dynamic 3-year-old colt whom Borel likens to a Corvette. The two worked together to stun the field at the Derby, as Borel guided Street Sense from 19th to victory with a stirring stretch run to beat Hard Spun by 2¼ lengths.
Though he has tried to deflect much of the praise to trainer Carl Nafzger and the horse that he says is just scratching the surface of his ability, the Derby was both vindication and validation for Borel.
A lifelong grinder whose everyman approach has endeared himself to fans, trainers and owners alike, Borel spent most of his career trying to prove he belonged "at the top of the line."
Now he's there, heading to Pimlico for the Preakness while trying to help Street Sense become the first horse in nearly 30 years to win the Triple Crown. And as much as Borel says he prepared himself for the attention winning the Derby would bring, he admits he's still learning how to deal with becoming the new face of his sport, if only for a moment.
His palms were sweaty when he shook hands with President Bush at a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II of England a couple of days after the Derby. He struggled to find the words to chat with NFL star Peyton Manning and the dozens of dignitaries and special guests who came to congratulate him on the victory.
Never one to shy away from a microphone, he's limited media access during the Triple Crown chase so he can focus on the task at hand. He imagined the cheers and the adulation. He didn't imagine so many people would want so much of his time, time he feels could be better spent doing what he's always done: working horses, talking to trainers, riding a $15,000 claiming race as if it's the most important two minutes of his life.
"Is he comfortable? Probably not. Probably never will be," said Jerry Hissam, Borel's agent for more than 15 years. "You've got to realize, he's waited a long time for this, but to him it's still about the horse."
It always has been. Borel dropped out of school after eighth grade so he could ride horses for his older brother, Cecil, a trainer. Even as he grew into one of the top young riders in Louisiana - the proving ground for Hall of Fame riders like Kent Desormeaux - he didn't stop showing up before the sun rose. He'd spend four or five hours in the barns or on the track working horses, then work a full card that afternoon for whatever trainer would have him.
"When I'm in the gate, I've got a hole and I've got a shot," said Borel, nicknamed "Bo-rail" for his penchant for hugging the fence while he makes his way around the track. "I'm always going to ride like that. I'm going to run as hard for you as hard as I'm going to ride for Mr. Carl."
It's that kind of mentality that's made Borel so popular among the people who work behind the scenes at the track: the hot walkers, the exercise riders and the assistant trainers. It's only fitting that the first ones to congratulate Borel after winning the Derby were the outriders, and it was no surprise when he grabbed a sponge on his way to the winner's circle to give Street Sense a celebratory bath.
"His dad taught him that, that's his family's way," Hissam said. "He learned at a young age how hard he was going to have to work, and he hasn't stopped in 20 years."
Not even after winning the biggest race of his life. Borel has tried as best he can to stick to his routine in the days after the Derby. He even turned down a chance to appear on "The Tonight Show" because of fears it would keep him away from the track too long.
"I'd rather be out here working," he said. "I'd rather be out here with the people. The more I work the horses, the more time I spend with them ... I believe it helps me win races."
Now, the plain-talking southern gentleman who bookends almost all of his answers with a "sir" or "ma'am" is two wins away from history. Not bad for a guy who says he's thankful for each day he shows up at the barns before dawn and they don't tell him to turn around and go home.
"I'll never forget where I came from," he said. "You can't. They're the people that helped you get here, and I'll be here for them as long as I can."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)