Steve Haskin's Derby Recap: No Nonsense

Steve Haskin's Derby Recap: No Nonsense
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Champion Street Sense charges down the rail to Kentucky Derby victory.
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The 133rd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was about a king, a queen, and a bunch of country boys. It was about a near-record crowd that erupted in celebration for its transplanted hometown heroes—Street Sense, Carl Nafzger, and Calvin Borel. And it was about the end of a 23-year-old jinx. But most importantly, it was about class.

Queen Elizabeth II couldn’t have picked a better year to attend her first Kentucky Derby, as she witnessed a scintillating performance by a champion, who finally proved after more than two decades that a Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner can win the coveted Run for the Roses.

Not only did the Kentucky-bred son of Street Cry, out of the Dixieland Band mare Bedazzle, win America’s greatest race, he charged past 18 horses with yet another electrifying run and rail-skimming ride from Calvin Borel, the jockey they call “Bo-rail,” to win by  2 1/4 lengths over a courageous Hard Spun. The path horse and rider have been paving race after race can now officially be named Easy Street, or as the Queen might say, Fleet Street.

The deafening roar that erupted from the stands as the victors returned could be felt as much as heard. Unlike the rousing ovations for past Derby winners, this one was for the horse, the trainer, and the jockey, all of whom are heroes in the state of Kentucky.

Less than two weeks earlier, as Derby horses paraded to Keeneland in nearby Lexington to train over its Polytrack surface, only Nafzger and Street Sense remained at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., to train for the Derby in the traditional manner. As a result, Churchill, normally a hotbed of activity in the weeks leading up to the race, was eerily silent and devoid of activity or Derby buzz. Only a handful of reporters and TV camera crews gathered at Barn 26 to seek out Nafzger’s ever-flowing words of wisdom.

Those who were there, however, for Street Sense’s sensational five-furlong breeze 11 days before the May 5 Derby couldn’t help but think that the one-horse show at Churchill Downs was the only one that mattered.

One by one, Derby horses began trickling into Churchill in the days to come, while mega-trainers Todd Pletcher, with five Derby horses, and Doug O’Neill, with three (one of whom would be withdrawn), insisted on remaining at Keeneland.

As it turned out, the first five finishers in the Derby—Street Sense, Hard Spun, Curlin, Imawildandcrazyguy, and Sedgefield—all had at least one work over the Churchill surface, with the first two finishers, who distanced themselves from the field, among the few that had two works. As for the Keeneland holdouts, they finished sixth, eighth, 12th, 13th, 17th, and 20th.

But those are mere sidelights to the 2007 Kentucky Derby, which proved to be a great deal more profound than mere statistics. This was a Derby in which emotion prevailed over all else, beginning with the enthusiastic salute from the 156,635 in attendance, the third-largest crowd in Derby history.

Nafzger has been known to evoke emotion before, and will always be remembered for his passionate and inspiring call of the 1990 Kentucky Derby on national TV, in which he described the running of the race in detail to Unbridled’s owner, 92-year-old Frances Genter, and his touching “Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you,” immediately following the race.

He didn’t have to resort to that for Street Sense’s owner/breeder, 83-year-old James Tafel, but emotions were nearly as strong, as the two embraced in celebration of their longtime relationship, which brought them victories in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) with Unshaded, the Florida Derby (gr. I) with Vicar, and the grade I Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, Spinster, Apple Blossom, and Go for Wand with Banshee Breeze.

Then there was a proud Cecil Borel reflecting on his younger brother’s life and crowning achievement, as well as his penchant for riding the rail. Cecil currently trains a string at Churchill Downs, and Calvin will occasionally show up at the barn at 5 a.m. to help out.

“He’s worked real hard, and he’s got a lot of heart,” Cecil said in his thick Cajun accent. “At 16, he rode a horse for me and he went about five or six wide. When he came back to the barn, I let him walk the horse instead of the hot walker. When he made about three rounds, I took a big old barrel and put it in the corner, and he had to go around the barrel three times. Then the fourth time around, he hollered at me, ‘Why you got the barrel there?’ I told him it’s a little farther than walking on the inside. The next time around I took the barrel out and he went on the inside, and that’s how it got started.”

When Borel dismounted, his agent, Jerry Hissam, gave him a bear hug and lifted him high off the ground. “It’s a dream to be here,” said Hissam, who has been handling Borel’s book for 17 years. “I’ve been in this game for 40 years, starting out at Waterford Park, and here I am with Calvin, who started out at Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs, standing together in the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby. Calvin deserves this. He’s such a hard worker. He’s here six days a week and gets on six or seven horses every morning and then rides six or seven in the afternoon.”

For Nafzger, who has handed over the majority of his stable to longtime assistant Ian Wilkes and is in semi-retirement, there was still plenty of glory left for him at age 65. “I got about 10 minutes before the adrenaline goes down and that’ll be it,” he said walking through the tunnel following the race.

As he made his way through the paddock, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of four Kentucky Derbys, came over and put his arms around Nafzger’s shoulders. “I told them before they started it’s a game of experience, and the guy that’s got the most experience is going to saddle the winner,” Lukas said. “That’s just wonderful. Great job. Soak it up now; you know, you’ve been there.”

Nafzger couldn’t wait to call his friend and mentor, John Nerud, who turned 93 earlier this year. “Nerud, you should be here,” he said. “I just had to give you a quick call. It’s been a great relationship just knowing you, and all the things you taught me about a horse and about breeding. I want to tell you something. Thank you, and I mean that. Thank you for everything. Now, I’m gonna go in the Derby Museum and tell everybody how smart I am.”

The story of the 2007 Kentucky Derby began last October when Street Sense demolished a talented field by 10 lengths in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, clinching the 2-year-old championship and establishing himself as a solid favorite for the Derby. The four horses immediately behind him—Circular Quay, Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, and Stormello—all would return looking for revenge on the first Saturday in May.

As to be expected, lucrative offers to buy the colt came pouring in after the Juvenile. “I know we could have taken some big money off the table, but Mr. Tafel insisted the horse was not for sale,” Nafzger said over the winter, while preparing Street Sense at Florida’s Palm Meadows. “In the past, he’s had to retire horses who have gotten beat in order not to devalue them. But this time, he said, ‘I think I’m just going to enjoy this one.’ ”

They thought back to when the colt was at Drew Nardiello’s Chesapeake Farm near Lexington. Said Nafzger, “The first time Mr. Tafel and I went to see the babies at Chesapeake Farm, Drew said, ‘There’s only one thing wrong with this colt.’ Mr. Tafel asked, ‘What’s that?’ and Drew said, ‘He’s perfect. He’s got only one way to go—down.’ We put him in training at Ocala Stud and he did everything right.”

At Mike O’Farrell’s Ocala Stud at the same time, there was another colt named Nobiz Like Shobiz, a grand-looking son of Albert the Great   who was the star of the group. “He was a standout,” said Ocala Stud farm manager Bob Noble. “All the owners and trainers who came to look at their horses would look at him and ask, ‘Who’s that?’ Street Sense was a nice colt, but he wasn’t the type who turned heads. He was just one of the group.”

That perception would not last very long, as he would soon have heads spinning. Early in the colt’s 3-year-old campaign, Nafzger mapped out a plan where Street Sense would have two preps before the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that the last horse to win the Derby off only two preps was Sunny’s Halo in 1983, and the previous horse to accomplish it was Jet Pilot in 1947.

But Nafzger remained adamant that two races was all the colt needed. In his first start, he got the gut-wrencher he needed when he outgamed Any Given Saturday by a nose in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). In his next start, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, he was beaten a nose by Dominican in a freakishly run race, in which they crawled six furlongs in 1:16.65 before flying home in the final eighth. Street Sense likely cost himself the race when he lost focus turning for home and started gawking at the crowd.

Nafzger was undeterred, and felt the race was another step forward in getting the colt to peak on Derby day. As the Derby neared, Nafzger attempted to keep Borel, who had finished eighth, 12th, 12th, and 17th in his previous four Derby attempts, focused on the race and remove any pressure he might be feeling. He told Borel to “keep everything in perspective and have fun. How many times have I been to the Derby in 17 years? Three, so if you don’t enjoy it, why the hell are you here? You love ridin’ races, so ride to have fun, because if you go to worrying about it, you’ll screw up for sure.”

Nafzger continued to be philosophical in the weeks leading up to the Derby, his comments sounding like passages from his book Traits of a Winner. “When I’m watching a race, I’m not watching to see if I’m gonna win,” he said 10 days before the race. “I’m watching the horse. I’m watching the jockey. I’m watching me. If the horse makes a mistake, is it the horse, is it the jockey, or did I screw up? I’m thinking, what can I do to correct any mistakes. You can get into ifs and buts your whole life, but it don’t mean a thing.”

To Nafzger, who provides over 4% of the purses to the help, it’s all about the horse, regardless of the level of competition. “If you can’t enjoy watching a $5,000 claimer give you 110% you shouldn’t be in this business,” he said. As for Street Sense, he’s the one who calls the shots, not the trainer. “He wants to do what he’s doing; he set the program,” Nafzger said four days before the Derby. “He brought us here, and now we’re going to go with him all the way. If he gets us there he gets us there. If he doesn’t he doesn’t. That’s horse racing.”

With Street Sense turning in two of the best Derby works anyone has ever seen at Churchill Downs (five furlongs in :59 April 24 and the same distance in 1:01 May 1), activity continued to swell at Keeneland. Hard Spun, winner of five of his six career starts, including the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), shipped to Churchill Downs from his barn at Keeneland and worked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 April 12, convincing trainer Larry Jones and owner Rick Porter that he liked the Churchill surface. A subsequent mile work back at Keeneland wasn’t as pretty as he went in 1:42 2/5 and returned blowing hard, which was what Jones wanted, considering the son of Danzig was coming off a six-week layoff.

Jones became an instant favorite with the media, with his good old boy wit and charm and quick one-liners. Like Nafzger, who grew up in Olton, Texas and rode bulls because “it beat picking cotton,” Jones was raised in Herndon, Ky., which basically was a post office and a four-way stop sign, with a population 150 “if you count the dogs.”

Just as Nafzger attempted to get inside Borel’s head, Jones, knowing that Street Sense was the horse to beat, and aware of how he had won his previous races, did his best to make sure jockey Mario Pino did not let Borel get through on his inside if the situation arose. “If you’re on the inside turning for home and you let Street Sense through on the rail, I’ll have you shot by the sixteenth pole,” he told Pino, with a half-serious, half-kidding twinkle in his eye.

When Jones brought Hard Spun to Churchill for good a week before the Derby and gave the colt his final work at five furlongs on April 30, he got more than he expected, as Hard Spun blew away his stablemate, grade I winner Wildcat Bettie B, and stopped the clock in a blistering :57 3/5. That sent up huge flares in the media. But Hard Spun did it all on his own and bounced out of the work on the muscle and looking for more action.

When asked how he thought the fans and handicappers will react to the work, Jones said with a big grin on his face, “The cowboy blew it. The cowboy absolutely had Derby pressure and he went out and worked him way too fast.”

Also on the grounds after being based at Keeneland was the undefeated Curlin, who many insisted was racing’s next superstar after winning all three of his starts, including the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and Rebel Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park, by an average margin of 9 1/2 lengths. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who took over Curlin’s training after majority interest in the son of Smart Strike   was sold following his maiden victory, was confident in the colt’s chances despite his trying to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at 2, and the first since Regret in 1915 to win off only three career starts.

On the Monday before the race, Giacomo’s half-brother, Tiago, winner of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and grade I winner Stormello arrived from California. The following day Pletcher’s Keeneland four—Circular Quay, Any Given Saturday, Scat Daddy, and Cowtown Cat—joined Churchill-based stablemate Sam P. The final horse to arrive was none other than Street Sense’s old farm mate Nobiz Like Shobiz, who was coming off a victory in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct.

The predicted rain for Derby day never materialized, as the area’s thunderstorms passed to the south. Nafzger was relaxed and in great spirits Derby morning, clowning around with Nobiz Like Shobiz’ trainer Barclay Tagg, and promising to bring Starbucks coffee and donuts to the barn for visitors the morning after the race if Street Sense won. With the track in bad shape after two days of rain, Nafzger decided to have Street Sense walk the shed instead of gallop.

“For six months, this colt has taken us on a perfect trip,” Nafzger said. “Why should I make a decision that could screw him up on the last day? It’s sticky out there. What if he pulls a shoe off and takes off a hunk of his quarter?”

The fans made Street Sense the slight 9-2 favorite over Curlin at 5-1. The only other horse in single-digit odds was Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Scat Daddy at 7-1.

The start was a good one, as Hard Spun went for the lead, followed closely by Teuflesberg, Cowtown Cat, and Stormello. Street Sense broke well from post 7, and Borel immediately had his mind on getting to the rail. He waited for Zanjero to clear him on the inside, and then steered Street Sense sharply to the rail, slipping between Zanjero and Imawildandcrazyguy. Here he was once again on his favorite part of his favorite track. But this time, the other jockeys would be looking out for him. Or so one would have thought.

Hard Spun continued to lead through swift early fractions of  :22.96 and :46.26, while edging clear by a length. Street Sense, meanwhile, had only one horse beat in the 20-horse field, but Borel was where he wanted to be. “I knew the pace was quick, so I backed him up a little bit and let two horses go by me,” he said.
 
Down the backstretch, there wasn’t much change in position, as Hard Spun was able to slow the pace down a bit, getting the six furlongs in 1:11.13. Pino took advantage of Hard Spun’s superior cruising speed and let him open up by two lengths, with Street Sense still back in 17th. The stalkers were under pressure trying to keep up and were already in retreat, as Sedgefield, Nobiz Like Shobiz, and Any Given Saturday began a mild move. Around the turn, Borel finally kicked into gear on Street Sense, while still hugging the rail, and the colt rapidly began picking off horses one by one. It was amazing that with Borel’s and Street Sense’s reputation for riding the rail to victory, there was no one blocking their path.

No one except Liquidity, who also was down on the rail, posing a major obstacle for the pair around the far turn. But, just as Street Sense came rolling up behind him, David Flores, on Liquidity, came off the rail, allowing Street Sense through.

Now it was just a matter of finding a seam to ease out. Pino and Hard Spun had opened a three-length lead at the quarter pole, all but cooking everyone near them. It became obvious that Street Sense, who had made up 16 lengths in a half-mile, was the only horse who had a chance to catch the game and fleet Hard Spun.

Nearing the head of the stretch, Hard Spun came three wide, but Pino, heeding Jones’ words, quickly steered him back to the rail. Street Sense’s good luck continued when Borel found a perfect seam and was able to ease Street Sense outside Sedgefield and inside Nobiz Like Shobiz and Any Given Saturday. Now, here he was charging up outside Hard Spun, as the pair drew off from the others.

Curlin, who had been sucked back into the body of the field, found room late, but the top two were long gone. Despite Hard Spun’s tenacity, Street Sense was simply too much for him. He collared Hard Spun at the three-sixteenths pole and immediately ducked to the rail after drawing clear. With his final two quarters in :24 2/5 and :24 1/5, Street Sense crossed the wire 2 1/4 lengths in front, covering the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.17 on a fast track that earlier in the day was listed as muddy.

Hard Spun finished 5 3/4 lengths ahead of Curlin, who was a half-length ahead of Imawildandcrazyguy, who had to take the overland route, some nine or 10 wide. Sedgefield held gamely to finish fifth, a neck in front of Circular Quay.

As Nafzger headed to the party at the Kentucky Derby Museum, he stopped, bent down, and picked up a five-dollar bill. “How you gonna top that?” he said, putting a new twist on Richard Dreyfuss’ understated words in the movie Let It Ride: “I’m having a very good day.”

Over at Jones’ barn, everyone was proud of the colt’s effort, but realized the Derby victory could have been theirs had Street Sense not had the perfect trip. When Pino came by, Jones gave him words of encouragement.

“Don’t feel bad about this, Mario, you did a wonderful job,” Jones said. “We got beat by a very good horse. I watched Street Sense work and he scared the living bejeebers out of me. If anyone other than you had made Calvin come around them, we’re home free. You damn near pulled it off. Yep, the rookies damn near got it.”

So, in the end, tradition won out. It was the horses who trained at Churchill Downs that prevailed, with the first two finishers having bullet works over the track. While Jones did give Hard Spun an important work at Keeneland, he sandwiched it with sharp works at Churchill, and was the only trainer aggressive and confident enough to work his horse a mile, knowing he needed a stiff lung-opener coming off a six-week layoff. It is that kind of thinking that often wins Derbys, and Jones would be hailed a genius today had Street Sense not had one of the most blessed trips in Derby history.

The following morning, Nafzger, as promised, arrived with two pourable boxes of Starbucks coffee and several boxes of donuts. He commented how his book has doubled in sales. “We sold one book yesterday and two today,” he joked.

Street Sense’s herbalist, Cathy McGlory, fed the colt carrots and commented that he only lost 10 pounds in the race. Nafzger brought Street Sense out for a jog, and the colt looked amazing, pausing, as he usually does, with his head and ears up. “Look how bright-eyed that s.o.b. is,” Nafzger commented. “He’s a monster.”

This was a time for Nafzger to give thanks, to Tafel, Borel, and Wilkes, who trains 45 of their 55 horses. “The first time I ever saw Ian was when he came from Australia,” Nafzger recalled. “When he galloped by me at Keeneland one morning, I told my assistant at the time, Sharon Peters, ‘Don’t let that boy out of my sight.’ We’ve grown up 16 years together, and we think alike and see horses alike. He could have trained this horse just as well as I have in a minute.”

As Wilkes said, “I want to keep the old fella around. I don’t want him to retire. I enjoy being around him.”

But Nafzger admitted he no longer has the energy to train more than the 10 horses he has. “I love horse racing and I love what we’re doing, but one day I’m just gonna disappear.”

Nafzger may eventually disappear, but the emotional and memorable moments he has provided will remain for all time. As he leaned against the rail watching Street Sense jog the morning after the Derby, Lukas came by on his pony. “It’s a perfect world this morning, isn’t it?” Lukas said to Nafzger, who replied, “Perfect world, my friend.”

On this weekend, it was not only a perfect world for Nafzger, but for all of Thoroughbred racing.

 

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