Hero in a Bridle

The field was moving down the backstretch. A bay colt caught my eye. He was moving easily. Very easily.

I inched closer to the television set. The sound was down because my wife was sleeping on the couch. She was eight months pregnant with our third child.

This horse was making a move. A winning move. In deep stretch, he couldn't get through. He finished third.

It was March 3, 1990. The race was the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II).

I raised the sound so I could find out who the colt was.

The announcer said Shot Gun Scott was the winner. Second was Smelly. The name of the horse I had followed was Unbridled.

I knew then I had seen the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner. I also knew Unbridled had the potential to pass those on my short list of all-time favorites, led by the great Secretariat.

Who can say why we are more attracted to certain horses. I watched the replay. Over and over. I fell in love with this horse.

I waited anxiously for Unbridled's next start, the Florida Derby (gr. I), two weeks later. If he put in the same kind of move, he would win easily. He did.

Unbridled would have one more race prior to the Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland. Nine days before the major Derby prep, my son David was born. The following morning, I snuck away from the hospital and made my way to Keeneland. I introduced myself to trainer Carl Nafzger, and for the first time, saw Unbridled in person.

With a newborn and two other young children at home, I couldn't attend an entire day's racing. Arriving just 20 minutes before the Blue Grass, I watched Unbridled finish third to Summer Squall and Land Rush.

There are good thirds and there are bad thirds. This was a good third.

On a muddy track he obviously didn't like, Unbridled made a nice move on the turn between calls. The key now was how he would work in the coming weeks.

Nafzger has never been known for working his horses fast, and his win percentage with first time starters is average. He doesn't push. If they work fast, or win first out, you can be sure you are watching a good horse.

Unbridled worked exceptionally well before his 2-year-old maiden voyage at Arlington Park. He won that day by 10 1/2 lengths. His quality was clear before I noticed him.

On April 22, two weeks before the Derby, Unbridled worked four furlongs on a good Churchill Downs track in :51 1/5. It was a good move, but I wanted more. Nafzger obviously wanted more, too. He worked Unbridled again just three days later. When I heard he went six furlongs in 1:13, I knew: Get the garland of roses ready.

Despite being a $10 and $20 player, I prepared to wager $200 on Unbridled. I had never been more confident in a Kentucky Derby starter in my life.

Earlier on the Derby card, I hit a trifecta for $4,000. Divine intervention was telling me to wager more on Unbridled.

My binoculars focused on Unbridled in the paddock; I beheld a colt glistening under the twin spires. He had his game face on.

The tote board read 10-1 and never changed. Never went up, never went down.

I pulled 12 $100 bills from my pocket, 10 of them for win bets, two on the exacta with Summer Squall.

In the post parade, when most Derby starters buck and squeal during the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," Unbridled never turned a hair. He looked like a pony. I was so confident it was scary.

I really didn't need to watch the race because I knew Unbridled would win. I could have told that to Mrs. Genter before Nafzger called out the most famous lines in recorded Derby history.

Never had I seen a horse and trainer so in tune with each other. While others scoffed because his next five races included only one allowance win, I knew he would win the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) on Oct. 27, 1990, at Belmont Park.

As I watched this year's Breeders' Cup races on the same track exactly 11 years later, I felt a twinge, a touch of sadness. My hero is gone. Perhaps the World Thoroughbred Championships provided someone with a new hero.

DAN LIEBMAN is The Blood-Horse executive editor.