The familiar blue and yellow silks worn by James B. Tafel-owned runners have been an outstanding part of the national Thoroughbred racing scene for the better part of three decades. Carried to victory over the years by such notable names as champion Banshee Breeze, grade I winner Vicar, and multiple stakes winner Binalong, just to name a few, they will again take center stage on the national racing scene when Street Sense, champion 2-year-old male of 2006, heads postward as the expected favorite in Saturday’s $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland.
Shortly thereafter, and clear across the country, the Tafel silks will again be featured prominently on a national racing scene, this time as part of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend. Tafel’s son, Jim, will take to the track in his No. 73 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR for an American LeMans race, the third in that racing league’s series, which is a preliminary event to Sunday's Champ Car feature. The green flag drops just an hour or so after the finish of the Blue Grass.
So to the Tafel family, Street Sense obviously means more than just the name of their champion race horse.
“Everyone I talk to (about the horse) thinks there’s a connection between what I do and his name,” Jim Tafel said of the 3-year-old Street Cry colt. “There’s not, but I don’t have a problem with people thinking that.”
In a nod to his father and their mutually shared passions for Thoroughbred and auto racing, the Tafel silks are painted proudly on the hood of Jim’s car and are now a permanent part of the vehicle’s fancy paint job. And while the owner/driver will have his mind set on the task at hand--winning his first title at a LeMans event--his heart will be firmly planted in the Bluegrass with his father and rooting Street Sense to victory at Keeneland.
“The one thing about all this is that it brings me close to my father,” the younger Tafel said. “It’s hard for me to not be there, but my father and I agree that this is where I’m supposed to be. He’s very supportive of me and my racing team I’m supportive of him and the horses.”
As both owner and driver of a prosperous auto racing team, as well as a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing, Tafel said the similarities between the two ventures are strong, despite the fact one involves a living creature and the other involves well-tuned machinery.
“It’s all about the team,” he said of the connections of Street Sense. “Like in horse racing, there’s a team effort. (Carl Nafzger) is the team leader, and there’s (jockey Calvin Borel) and the people in the barn. My type of racing isn’t any different, and I learned a lot about setting up a good team; it’s a group effort, pulling people together to accomplish one goal.”
That’s not where the similarities end. Tafel noted Thoroughbred racing deals with actual horse power and auto racing deals with mechanical horsepower. Both are speed-related racing industries and both involve elite athletes at the top of their respective sports. And despite the fact he handles a 1 1/2-ton machine at up to 180 mph, he still feels a bit overwhelmed by a half-ton horse that travels up to 40 mph.
“There are so many factors involved, but when the green flag drops, it all goes out the window,” Tafel said. “When I’m driving I’m relaxed; I’m not nervous at all. But I was at a photo shoot with Street Sense recently and I was holding his reins; I was more nervous holding his reins than I’ve ever been driving a race car.”
But the biggest similarity, he said, is the horse and auto racing industries’ fan bases relative to those of the more mainstream sports. “It seems to be very black and white,” Tafel said. “Those who know both sports seem to love it, breathe it, live it--and those who don’t don’t seem to know anything about it. Hopefully, we’re changing all that.”
Win or lose, either in Lexington or Long Beach, Tafel plans to be in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) on the first Saturday in May, by his father’s side and cheering Street Sense on in the nation’s most prestigious horse race. The only horsepower he’ll be concerned with, at least for that day, is what’s under Borel and the historic twin spires.
“Oh I’ll be there, without a doubt,” he said. “On that day, that’s the racing I’ll be focused on.”