Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully

Calvin in My Car

(Calvin with Rachel) 


The first time I went to a racetrack it was opening day at Keeneland track in Lexington, KY. I expected everyone I wanted to talk to would be there. It never dawned on me that there would be racing at numerous tracks. It’s embarrassing to think about how much I had to learn, but then again, that’s why I love what I do: I get to learn all the time. It’s a great job as long as you don’t care about looking stupid.  I’m don’t mind at all.

Gradually, however, I connected with the people that were central to Rachel Alexandra’s story. One of those people was her jockey, Calvin Borel. Calvin was a highly experienced jockey, including having won the Kentucky Derby, before riding Rachel. But for all the horses he’d ridden in his life, Calvin always talked about how Rachel was just one of a kind. So good it was spooky, he’d say.

Calvin is a writer’s dream because his language is filled with energy and colloquial expressions. Reporters love to quote him, but still I needed to talk to him myself, to learn more about his relationship with Rachel, why it was special, what made her special, etc.

Calvin doesn’t do email and it took some digging to reach him. The secret was to find his agent, Jerry Hissam. Every jockey has an agent. That’s the person that helps him (or her, occasionally) get rides. The agent keeps track of a jockey’s schedule, their earnings and the other details of a busy jockey’s life. Jerry, once I found him and explained to him about my project, was happy to connect me with Calvin.

So on one of my many trips to the Lexington/Louisville area I was scheduled to meet with Calvin one early morning after his workout rides and before the afternoon races.

I have interviewed Nobel laureates, astronauts, theoretical physicists, Pulitzer prize winners, you name it, and I very rarely get nervous (well, maybe when I interviewed author Frank McCourt), but I was so nervous to talk to Calvin. Perhaps I felt that the whole project hung on what funny or clever things he might say to me. Perhaps it’s because he seemed, for a small person (jockeys tend to be five feet tall or less), larger than life, with his Cajun heritage, his outsize emotions and his storybook successes.

Somehow I managed to really bungle the interview. Before I knew it, there he was, sitting in my car on a cold, gray fall morning. I ran out of paper to write notes on, my recorder died, and we were not sitting across from one another, as per usual, but side by side. Plus I forgot to take a photo of him!

Much of what he said I’d read before in various news articles, but what I took away from the interview wasn’t so much the specific words he said, or the information it conveyed, it was the feel of him as a person.

That is the kind of experience, when researching, that is hard to quantify, but also priceless. Getting to meet Calvin one-on-one, visiting the racetrack, meeting Rachel herself, all these did not necessarily result in a key scene or phrase, but they all steeped me in the world of the racetrack. Although I will always be an outsider in the racing world, these things all gave me glimpses into that world.


Read more writings in my features, essays or books