Barbara Borden

Barbara Borden

Pat Lang

Inside Track: Flipping Lips

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It has been nearly 20 years since one of the most notorious identity mix-ups  in American Thoroughbred racing raised eyebrows.

By now, most horse racing fans have long forgotten about the infamous Blairwood-Briarwood switcheroo on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs in 1988, when on the first race of the card, the winning horse (Blairwood) was entered under an erroneous name (Briarwood). The resulting investigation of the incident ended with the suspension of trainer Jerry Romans and stricter horse identification rules for the sport.

But one person who still remembers the event well is Barb Borden. Although Borden was not involved in the incident, the next 20 years of her career were directly impacted because of it. You see, as a result of the mix-up Borden was hired by the Kentucky Racing Commission as a horse identifier. She has held the position ever since.

Though horse identifiers in Kentucky now work individually for each racetrack (it has been that way since 1998), Borden holds the title of horse identifier for three of the state’s Thoroughbred tracks – Churchill, Keeneland, and Turfway Park. She was also the identifier for the state’s fourth racetrack – Ellis Park - until 2004, but left that position to become a steward there.

As an identifier, Borden’s duties are many. But to the average person, it may not seem that way.

“Most people just see me walking around the paddock and looking at the horses. They say, ‘Wow, you have such a cool, fun job’,” Borden said. “They think that’s all I do, but they don’t see all the grunt work.”

Video: See Borden at Work (Courtesy of Keeneland).

Borden admits that being in the paddock before the races is the fun part of her job. It is there that she inspects each horse to ensure that they are in fact who their handlers say they are. She does this by lifting the lip of each horse and making sure that the identifying tattoo matches the one that she has on file. Borden then looks as the body of the horse to ensure that the markings, colors, and any other indentifying characteristics match the paperwork that was submitted by the owner.

In the nearly two decades that Borden has performed her job, there have been many mix-ups, but none to the level of Blairwood-Briarwood. Borden says about two or three times a year she will catch a wrong horse in the paddock, but never has she deemed it to have been the result of intentional wrongdoing. More frequently, she will scratch a horse due to improper paperwork, which is the “grunt work” portion of her job.

“I usually come in at about 8 a.m. to start my paperwork,” Borden said. “All of the (Jockey Club) foal certificates are kept on file with me. Every race day, I print a proof for each horse in the race. I have to make sure each certificate is on file, that they are tattooed, that the paperwork is not counterfeit, that the health papers are in order, and that they have the proper documents of ownership -- things like that.

“Most of the time, if I have to scratch a horse, it’s because of a typo or the paperwork is not on file. I’ll do everything I can to resolve the problem before I have to scratch a horse because I used to work on the backside, and I know how much money and work goes into racing a horse. But in the end, if it’s a judgment call and if I’m wrong, I will suffer the consequences.”

Borden grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and began her career in the racing industry by walking horses at Thistledown. She later was a groom and exercise rider in California, before eventually moving to Kentucky in 1984. After working as a chart taker at the Daily Racing Form for four years, Borden landed her job as a horse identifier.

“For the most part, it is enjoyable,” Borden said. “It has its ups and downs. There is some controversy at times, but the most important thing is to do what’s right.”

Borden also enjoys her work as a steward at Ellis Park, which brings a whole different set of responsibilities, including settling disputes, watching and determining the outcome of races, and overseeing licenses. She says it is a nice change of pace for a couple months in the summer.

“Everyone comes in with complaints, so we have to settle disputes about money, entries, and everything else. Being a horse ID is very intense, and the amount of work is challenging to keep up with. A steward is a hard job as well, but the responsibilities are different.”