Six years ago Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger used the Tampa Bay Derby, then a grade III event, as the starting point for Street Sense's 2007 campaign to victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The big bay son of Street Cry was making his first outing since clinching Eclipse Award honors as the champion 2-year-old male of 2006 after winning the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) by 10 lengths at Churchill Downs.
The 4 1/2 months between the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs in South Florida provided Jim Tafel's homebred with some much-needed downtime, and although Nafzger came under criticism for a light schedule leading up to the first Saturday in May, his plan played out to perfection.
"We felt he needed a rest because he had run five times as a 2-year-old and had hooked the best horses in the country," Nafzger recalled. "Street Sense had faced them in the (Lane's End) Breeders' Futurity (gr. I, finishing third) and in the Breeders' Cup. So it wasn't like he needed experience or needed to learn to run. All we needed to do was to get him fresh and get him ready in two good races."
Nafzger was speaking from experience and success. In 1990 he mapped out a plan in which his first Kentucky Derby starter, Frances Genter's Unbridled, captured the 1 1/4-mile Classic in handy fashion. Unbridled had four starts as a sophomore leading up to the Derby.
"We didn't actually know where we were going with Street Sense until one of his works," Nafzger said of planning the colt's schedule. "He did it great and we said, 'OK.' That was eight or nine days before the Tampa Bay Derby. That's when everybody got on my back. They said, 'Two races? You won't make it.' They didn't calculate that all we needed was fitness and timing. It was a different approach on our side."
Despite his champion status, Street Sense was not the Tampa Bay Derby favorite. WinStar Farm and Padua Stables' Any Given Saturday, who had won Tampa Bay Downs' Sam F. Davis Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher the month before, went off at 7-10 while the eventual winner was 6-5.
Ridden by regular rider Calvin Borel in the Tampa Bay Derby, Street Sense had to dig deep to win. He stalked the pace before kicking into high gear around the second turn, then charged hard to get up by a nose over Any Given Saturday. The final time of 1:43.11 was a track record after fractions of :23.53, :47.57, 1:12.03, and 1:36.80. It was 6 1/4 lengths back to Aggie Ordonez's 20-1 shot Delightful Kiss in third.
"Calvin saved him to the last bit to use him and when he used him at the quarter pole on, he had barely enough horse to win the horse race," Nafzger said following the victory. "Our horse was a little too fresh. He showed it in the post parade, he showed it in the paddock, and he made some mistakes. I was happy, but he did what I was scared he'd do—get tired."
With the added conditioning of the hard Tampa Bay Derby run under his girth, Street Sense was sent to Kentucky for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland. With Nafzger's string based at Churchill Downs, the nearby race seemed a perfect fit.
"First off, Keeneland is only 75 miles from Louisville," Nafzger said. "You ship over, run, go home, no problem. Second, Keeneland is an all-weather track. At that particular time, since I had cut his schedule to two races, I had to have fitness and timing. I knew horses coming off an all-weather surface would be fit. Third, if I had gone to a dirt track (Oaklawn Park or Aqueduct), I'd have to worry about maybe running him in the mud and might not get the kind of race I wanted. I wanted a good guarantee that I would get my kind of race in the Blue Grass."
As Blue Grass favorite, Street Sense was passed by Silverton Hill's Dominican in the final furlong and was beaten a nose. Less than three-quarters of a length separated the first four finishers. Despite the loss, Tafel's runner proved at his best when it counted the most, taking the Kentucky Derby when favored at 9-2. Not only did he become the first horse to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Derby, but he was also the first Tampa Bay Derby winner to take the Run for the Roses.
In 2010 Pletcher didn't get his Tampa Bay Derby win, but he did use the race as a successful steppingstone for Super Saver , who finished third and went on to win the Kentucky Derby after a second-place Arkansas Derby (gr. I) run.
Eight weeks out from the May 4 Kentucky Derby, this year's edition of the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) features top contenders such as Verrazano and Falling Sky, and figures to be an important step for several sophomores hoping to excell in Triple Crown competition (full preview here). As part of the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the race will award 50 points to the winner, 20 to the runner-up, 10 for third place and 5 for fourth... and Street Sense's victory went a long way in popularizing the South Florida event as a significant prep on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Editor's Note: Street Sense, bred in Kentucky out of the Dixieland Band mare Bedazzle, went on to run second in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), then took the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and the Travers (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course. He retired at the end of 2007—after a runner-up finish in the Kentucky Cup Classic Stakes (gr. II) and a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I)—with earnings of $4,383,200 and a 6-4-2 record from 13 starts. Currently standing at Darley Japan, his first foals are sophomores in 2013. He is the sire of top Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) contender Unlimited Budget, winner of the Feb. 23 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. III) in her last start at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots off a 2012 victory in the Demoiselle Stakes (gr. II) for owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher, and is also represented on the Triple Crown trail this year by Elnaawi , third last time out in the March 2 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) for Shadwell Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.