Hall of fame gives no guarantees

NEW CUMBERLAND – Immortality (of sorts) awaits Calvin H. Borel. On Aug. 9, he will become the 97th jockey to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The 46-year-old Borel will have a few duties to complete before then. One of them is to ride Ruler of Love in Saturday’s Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort.

It will be Borel’s fourth career West Virginia Derby mount. He has previously finished fifth with the 12-1 shot Fantasticat in 2004; fourth with the 5-1 shot Infrattini in 2011; and eighth with the 39-1 shot Z Camelot in 2012.

During his 30-year tenure riding pari-mutuel races, Borel (through Monday) has recorded 5,030 victories. A total of 285 of them have come in stakes, 90 of which have been graded.

Included are a trio of Kentucky Derby triumphs, with Street Sense, Mine That Bird and Super Saver; and a Preakness win with the filly Rachel Alexandra. Borel has won the Travers Stakes, the Haskell Invitational Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, all Grade 1 events. But a West Virginia Derby victory has yet to be added to his collection.

He’s not the only hall of fame rider for whom that’s the case. Over the decades, 15 of them have had an aggregate 28 mounts in Mountaineer’s anchoring event. The group includes Jerry Bailey, Angel Cordero Jr., Bill Hartack, Chris McCarron, Bill Shoemaker, Mike Smith and Gary Stevens.

But the only one to win the West Virginia Derby is Pat Day – who accomplished the feat aboard Beau Sham in 1978, when it was a $50,000 race. Overall, hall of fame jockeys have a West Virginia Derby win ratio of 3.6 percent.

Explanations for this are elusive. One theory holds that the West Virginia Derby is more a race for local or regional jockeys who are familiar with the nuances of Mountaineer’s one-mile dirt oval.

No two racing strips are the same. Negotiating the 1 1/8-mile West Virginia Derby trip can be an exercise in knowing when one should and should not be near the rail; when and where a horse can be swung to the outside; and/or (if circumstances dictate) guided back to the inside again.

Joe Stokes and Dana Whitney are two examples of local riders who knew their ways around Mountaineer, and parlayed that knowledge into West Virginia Derby scores. Stokes won by nine lengths with Stellar Brush in 1999. And Whitney achieved a front-running victory with Western Pride in 2001.

Stokes was on a 6-5 favorite, though, and horses that heavily backed are expected to win, regardless of who’s riding. Whitney quickly zoomed to the fore with Western Pride, and dared the competition to catch him. Nobody could, and Western Pride equaled what was then the stakes and track record of 1:47.20.

And many talented jockeys from other locales do have one or more West Virginia Derby wins – Mark Guidry, Julien Leparoux, Rafael Bejarano and Corey Nakatani among them. None have been elected to the hall of fame. Not yet, anyway.

In pondering all this, one might be reminded of the comment hall of famer Eddie Delahoussaye made after his second Kentucky Derby victory – that to win the race, one must have the best horse. Not three weeks ago. Not three weeks hence. But on derby day itself.

Form suggests that Borel’s West Virginia Derby mount this Saturday, Ruler of Love, is a good horse. Might he prove best?

The colt’s resume includes one stakes win and three stakes placings. His morning line odds are 15-1, which means that he’ll be probably be a post-time longshot.

But, then, Mine That Bird was 50-1 when he won the Kentucky Derby. And he was odds-on at 9-10 when (without Borel) he lost the West Virginia Derby. Races never work out exactly the way they appear on paper.