Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: 2007 Kentucky Derby: a study in hope and remembrance

It’s been said that few favorites win the Kentucky Derby. One of the co-favorites just did, by 2 1/4 lengths. Street Sense, Kentucky bred, was a betting favorite, along with Curlin. It’s also been said that history repeats itself. Carl Nafzger came out of semi-retirement to train this horse and, as became obvious Saturday, May 5, knew what he was doing. Jockey Calvin Borel rode Street Sense easily settled in 19th place until almost the last mile of the race. Then, the son of the unproven stallion Street Cry and the mare Bedazzle put on a dazzling performance for the fans. But Nafzger wasn’t surprised. He kept faith in this horse—and jockey Calvin Borel—all along the way.

Flashback to 1990’s Kentucky Derby: While Summer Squall was all the rage, almost no one noticed a lightly-regarded entry named Unbridled. But Nafzger persuaded the colt’s owner, 92-year-old Mrs. Frances Genter, to come up from Florida to see her horse run this race. He promised her it would be worth the trip—and it was. Even now, the TV commentators recalled how he called the race for her from start to finish, and the hug and kiss they shared at the end.

Somehow, it seemed fitting that the limelight should now fall on Carl Nafzger. With the sport’s most luminary trainers—Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito—absent, there seemed to be an empty spot to fill. And there were plenty of contenders in this wide-open race. With no clear superhero, it could be anybody’s game. If anyone appeared to have the odds in his favor, it was Todd Pletcher, who successfully trained five horses for this Derby. Yet, not one of them finished in the money. Then, there were the Dominican sisters who thought a little divine intervention and prayers might put their horse in the winner’s circle. Sorry, ladies—not this year.

Calvin Borel, the jockey, was so exuberant, he started celebrating even before they crossed the finish line. Then, just before they stepped into the winner’s circle, he literally “bathed” his mount in victory—giving Street Sense a welcome cooling bath from a bucket. And a very distinguished visitor, Queen Elizabeth II, gave the whole event a touch of royalty.

Yet, for all the happiness, there was a somber note overarching it all. The Preakness is two weeks away, but right now everyone remembers Barbaro. At 7 p.m., Saturday, NBC showed a documentary tribute, Barbaro: A Nation’s Horse.

As stated on the program, Barbaro’s initial appeal was what he did on the racetrack; his legacy has become something else entirely. Never has there been such an outpouring of public interest and sympathy for a horse; certainly there was nothing like it in the Ruffian tragedy, though the veterinarians tried valiantly to save her, too. Winning the Triple Crown would have been a great sports story; but what ultimately unfolded was a story of dedication and grief, with love for an animal that brought out the best in humanity. You can order this special program by calling 1-888-258-9666.

So, once again, the Preakness—and history awaits. Sometimes, history does repeat itself. Other times, new ground is being broken. Street Sense won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last fall, and until last Saturday, no Juvenile champion had ever won the Run for the Roses. Also, he became the first 2-year-old champion to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

One other note for old times’ sake—Carl Nafzger is nearly retired. On Jan. 1, 2006, he turned over most of the horses in his stable to Ian Wilkes, his assistant. Nafzger kept only “10 or 12” horses owned by longtime clients Bentley Smith and Jim Tafel. Tafel is the owner of Street Sense. Smith is the son-in-law of the late Frances Genter.

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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