By Jennie Rees for Ellis Park

HENDERSON, Ky. (Tuesday, July 4, 2017) — A year ago this holiday weekend, Calvin Borel was a visitor on the Churchill Downs backside, his first time at a racetrack since he suddenly retired with little explanation three months earlier at Oaklawn Park. The Hall of Fame jockey said he was just “chilling,” trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life after the relationship with a long-time girlfriend disintegrated.

A lot has changed since then. Borel resumed riding last Aug. 27 at Ellis Park, the fans’ love-fest with the jockey picking right up where it left off. If his business was slower to resume, it certainly is picking up speed. In two days of riding at Ellis Park — he missed Saturday’s opener for his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and did not have a mount Tuesday — he has won three of eight starts with a pair of seconds, including one by a nose. All three wins were horses trained by his long-time friend, Buff Bradley.

But here’s the 50-year-old jockey’s life-altering event: His fiancee, Renay Falkner, is pregnant with Borel’s first child, a boy due in late September or early October. He also plans to adopt Falkner’s 2-year-old son, Stephen. Borel estimates he’s known Falkner for 20 years, including when she was an exercise rider for his brother Cecil.

This is how happy Borel is these days: He says even more than winning his three Kentucky Derbys — and anyone who watched the jockey’s unrestrained emotion and raw joy with Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010 in America’s greatest race knows just how high that happiness bar is.

“Life is good. I love the girl I’m with. I won three Kentucky Derbys, and I was happy,” he said. “But this is just unbelievable, listening to him kick at night.”

It was a feeling Borel didn’t think he’d ever experience, because of the toll on his body from reducing and the constant dehydration to make weight to ride during a career that began in 1983.

“Actually, I didn’t think I could ever have a kid,” said Borel, a two-time Ellis Park riding champion who has 5,173 career victories, ranking 28th on the all-time list. “The doctor said once I quit reducing, maybe I could. I don’t know if it just happened when I quit for awhile, and then we got together. It was kind of a mistake, but it was a good mistake — something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

“We’ve always been friends,” Borel said of Falkner. “When I came back to ride, we got together and one thing led to another. We get along so good. She has a little boy. He’s like my own. You know I love kids. This is just a dream come true. I’ve been there, win the Derby and did everything I wanted to do. But I love to ride, now. And she knows it and doesn’t want me to quit. It’s my passion. As long as I stay healthy, I’m going to ride. But they will have a good childhood, I promise you.”

Bradley, who gained his 500th and 501st career wins Monday with Borel aboard, has noticed a marked change in his friend from last year. When Borel came to visit last July 4th weekend, he stayed at Bradley’s farm in Frankfort, Ky., the trainer putting him to work mowing paddocks. Next thing you knew, Borel was riding Bradley’s pony, then galloping and working horses.

“You could tell he just didn’t know where he was going, what he wanted to do,” Bradley said. “I think he just needed the time to figure out himself. I think he knew he missed his riding.

“Just seeing Calvin now, he’s almost like a little kid again, he’s so happy about the baby coming. He’s showing pictures of the ultrasound — something you don’t always expect out of Calvin. I think it’s given him a new meaning and fulfilling another part of his life. He’s always been very motivated with his riding, but I think now he feels like he’s doing it for more than just himself.”