More than anything else, this year's Run for the Roses is about relationships…and myths.
When trainer Carl Nafzger was asked if he said “I Love You” to owner Jim Tafel, as he did in 1990 when Frances Genter’s Unbridled won the Derby, Nafzger replied, “He already knows that.”
There is no doubt that is true.
Many trainers and owners have close relationships, but few as special as Nafzger and Tafel. For 25 years, this pair has teamed together and along every step of the way they have done three things: won more than their share of stakes, exuded class, and done what is right for their horses.
Each man knows his place in the relationship, explained wryly by Nafzger as, “I create the bills and he pays them.”
Meaning Nafzger makes the decisions on workouts and races and Tafel makes the business decisions.
Tafel admitted Nafzger and bloodstock adviser Headley Bell were not enamored with sending Tafel’s Dixieland Band mare Bedazzle to Street Cry, but Tafel, as Nafzger said, “had veto power.”
As Tafel quipped, “That nonsense is Street Sense.”
There is also a relationship between a trainer and jockey, and Nafzger showed his confidence in Calvin Borel, sticking with the low-key but emotional rider who proved he may not have the big name of some other jocks but can ride with the best of them.
Of course there is the bond of rider and horse, and every year, watching the replay of the race, it is easy to remark that the winner got a good trip. The fact is the winner is usually so much the best he makes his trip. Borel knew how much horse he had under him, rode with confidence, and one can imagine the result was widely pleasing in jocks’ rooms across the land.
We all have a relationship with our families, and Borel wept when he thought of his late mother and father. Many mornings, the Cajun-born rider, who started at the bush tracks at age 8, mucks stalls for his brother, trainer Cecil Borel.
The backside is its own, close-knit community, and Calvin Borel is a highly thought of member.
Trainer Larry Jones is also well-liked on the backside, and it was evident as he strode through the crowd with Hard Spun prior to the race.
“Win one for all us cowboys,” a man yelled while tipping his cowboy hat to Jones, who always wears one to saddle his horses.
“Show ’em what the pea patch can do,” another screamed, a reference to Ellis Park, where Jones stabled for two decades.
On the backstretch, they appreciate loyalty, hard work, and good horsemanship. In this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), they witnessed all of those qualities.
This was also a Derby of myths, as noted by Churchill Downs’ communications chief John Asher two weeks prior to the race. “If Curlin or Street Sense wins, we can rid ourselves of a few more myths,” said Asher, who correctly selected Street Sense.
Street Sense took care of two of those myths.
First, no horse had ever won the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and come back to take the Derby. Though everyone knew all it would take was the right horse, until May 5, that right horse had not come along. Some trainers began passing the Breeders’ Cup if they thought they had a potential Derby horse. Thank goodness Carl Nafzger didn’t have such illogical thinking.
There also was the belief a horse could not win the Derby with only two prep races at 3. But Nafzger proved the most special relationship a trainer can have is with his horse. He knew the foundation he had put in Street Sense with five races at 2, mapped out a plan, and stuck to it. And as with Unbridled 17 years earlier, not only were the preps important stepping stones, but the workouts just prior to the race were crucial.
There is a final relationship, one most precious, and it holds true every year. It always will. That is how special each Derby winner is to the fans.
Street Sense actually shared this Derby stage with another horse, that being Barbaro. We will never forget the gallant Barbaro, but we will now embrace Street Sense as he takes his place in history.
We owe it to ourselves.
We are part of this relationship