Butterflies in the stomach? A case of dry mouth? Nervous tick? Welcome to the most exciting two minutes in sports.
For some, just getting a horse to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is the realization of a dream. For others who’ve been there before, it’s about winning—pure and simple.
The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is the race nearly every Thoroughbred owner thinks about, dreams about, or obsesses about. The pride of winning trickles down to anyone who’s ever been associated with the winning horse, or with its extended family—equine or human.
The collection of owners in this year’s lineup is an interesting one. There are representatives from powerful racing and breeding operations whose business foundations are based on winning the sport’s biggest and most prestigious races. There are partnerships, family operations, old-timers, and newcomers to the industry—all sharing the same dream.
Some have spent tens of millions of dollars (or more) in hopes of basking for a few minutes in the spotlight of the infield winner’s circle while their horse is decked out in a blanket of roses. Others made a more modest investment for their entry into the sport.
There is a belief among some in the industry that good things happen to good people on Derby day. They cite owners like John Galbreath, Penny Chenery, Frances Genter, Paul Mellon, and Bob and Beverly Lewis as evidence that the Derby is meant to be won by sporting men and women.
In addition, just about everyone who has won America’s most famous horse race has had to pay his or her dues in the sport. That often means more than a small share of disappointment or heartbreak. It can be a tough game, even brutal at times. Need evidence? Ask Roy and Gretchen Jackson about the highs and lows of racing following their emotional ride with Barbaro.
Owners are used to losing far more times than they win, so for some there is a bit of shell-shock that comes with success. I was reminded of that earlier this year at an industry dinner when James and Gus Tafel were fretting about whether Street Sense, their homebred colt who annihilated the field by 10 lengths in the 2006 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), would get enough support from voters to win the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
Street Sense ultimately received 229 of 271 votes, or 85%, in another runaway victory.
The Tafels have learned enough in their 20-plus years of ownership not to take anything for granted. They got their start through the Dogwood Stable partnerships of Cot Campbell, who pioneered the concept of shared ownership and has served as a mentor to the Tafels and many others in the business. (Elizabeth Valando, owner and breeder of Derby contender Nobiz Like Shobiz, is another owner who got started with Dogwood partnerships.)
Street Sense’s owners will have more than their share of butterflies in getting the Street Cry colt to the starting gate May 5 as one of the favorites in this 133rd Kentucky Derby. Street Sense is in good hands, with veteran conditioner Carl Nafzger calling the shots. Nafzger, of course, trained Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner. Nafzger has been the Tafels’ principal trainer for years.
Adding to the mix is the long-running “Juvenile jinx”—none of the first 22 winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile have gone on to win the Derby. Can Street Sense end that streak of futility?
He is a colt of uncommon ability whose biggest previous win came at Churchill Downs. His owners are good people, a credit to the game, and have paid their dues. Betting on Street Sense makes sense to me.