At 9:30 last Saturday night, trainer Carl Nafzger left the blanket of Kentucky Derby roses hanging in the tack room of his barn at Churchill Downs and padded quietly up the shedrow in the dark to Stall 2, where a light burned and his big, raw-boned colt, Unbridled, stood, half asleep, his eyes nearly closed.
"Look at this colt," said Nafzger, smiling like a proud father. "Happy as he can be. He waited and waited for Craig to ask him to run today, and when Craig said, 'Let's run,' he gave it everything he had."
Just four hours earlier, jockey Craig Perret had swung the big colt outside of Summer Squall on the turn for home and had asked Unbridled for all he had as they charged through the homestretch. Unbridled responded with a blistering final quarter of :24⅖ the second-fastest stretch run in Derby history, behind only Secretariat, on the way to a decisive, 3½-length victory in the 116th Kentucky Derby. Up in the clubhouse box seats, Nafzger, his voice rising with emotion, described what was happening on the racetrack to Unbridled's diminutive 92-year-old owner, Frances A. Genter, who could not see over the heads of the crowd: "He's on the lead, Mrs. Genter, he's on the lead!"
In the days leading up to it, the Derby was widely perceived as a two-horse race between Mister Frisky, who had won 16 straight races, most recently the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, and Summer Squall, who was coming to the race off smashing victories in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park and in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland three weeks before the Derby. As long ago as last August, when Unbridled broke his maiden at Arlington Park, winning by 10½ lengths, Nafzger began beating the drums, announcing to his stable help, "This is our ticket to the Kentucky Derby."
Unbridled did show promise as a baby, winning a stake at Calder Race Course and becoming a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby off his four-length triumph under jockey Pat Day in the Florida Derby on March 17. But he never became the Derby horse. His time for the nine-furlong Florida Derby, a lackadaisical 1:52, made him appear to be the best of a bad bunch. Then Summer Squall whipped Unbridled by nearly four lengths in the Blue Grass, and he was placed among the second echelon of Derby contenders. Even Day abandoned Unbridled, choosing instead to ride Squall in Louisville.
Perret, who replaced Day, had ridden Unbridled in the Blue Grass and was on him in his major workouts before the Derby, including a fast three-quarter-mile drill in 1:13. The colt bloomed at Churchill Downs, looking radiant as he went to and from the racetrack in the morning, and Nafzger exuded confidence. On April 28, seven days before the Derby, he watched the colt gallop into the bit and announced, "He's exactly where I want him. He's not ready today, but that's not the idea. He will be in seven days."
Nafzger dismissed as irrelevant Unbridled's third-place finish in the Blue Grass. "He doesn't like a slick surface," the trainer said. "Churchill Downs is a different racing surface from Keeneland. If it rains here, it becomes packed and firm, but not slick. Unbridled is a genuine horse. And he has trained great."
Unbridled was one of the reasons this Derby was so difficult to call. He was one of at least seven horses who had a shot to win it. Dogwood Stable's Summer Squall had won seven of eight races, and his connections were sure they had the goods. "He's never run anything that was not a terribly impressive race," said Cot Campbell, the head of Dogwood.
Mister Frisky, meanwhile, had not raced since his 4½-length score in the Santa Anita Derby, and there was no consensus as to what to make of his chances. Of his 16 victories, the first 13 were at El Comandante in Puerto Rico against competition not easily read on the mainland. The question now was how he would perform against the best 3-year-olds in the land. Part of his appeal was his trainer, Hall of Famer Laz Barrera, who had won the Derby with Bold Forbes (1976) and Affirmed (1978). "He is coming to the race perfect," said Barrera. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
When Churchill Downs's handicapper Mike Battaglia announced the morning line two days before the Derby—with Squall favored at 7-5, Frisky at 8-5 and the third choice, a three-horse entry, a distant 8-1—Nafzger seemed genuinely amazed. "Only two horses in the race," he said. "Why don't we all go home? This is not a two-horse race. When this race is over, there's gonna be a lot of wrecks out there." Nafzger was convinced Unbridled would not be among them. As if the race itself were not beclouded enough, a cold rain fell on Friday and well into Saturday, leaving the track with no cushion. But it was springy and fast.
A gang of 15 horses answered the call to the post, and the fans sent Frisky off as the tepid 9-5 favorite, with Squall the second choice at 2-1. Unbridled was fifth at 11-1. If it was pace they wanted in this Kentucky Derby, Nafzger and Perret could not have dreamed a finer beginning. On a track listed merely as "good," Perret let Unbridled drop back to 11th at the start and gallop casually along to the first turn while the front-runners, with Mister Frisky only a length behind, southern-fried themselves through an opening quarter in :22[3/5] and a half mile in :46. Jockey Gary Stevens, riding Frisky, did not hear the sound of sizzling and therefore was not alarmed: "My colt was very comfortable," he said later. "He was going easy down the backside."
Turning into the backstretch, Summer Squall was nine lengths back, nicely positioned behind the heat, while Perret had Unbridled in 12th place, almost 14 lengths behind the leaders. Down the backstretch, without urging, Unbridled began passing horses, moving to 11th, then 10th, then ninth. Up in the box seats, Nafzger leaned over and cried:
"Mrs. Center, we are now eighth!...The horse is waiting on Craig and he is in good position...."
They raced like the Seventh Cavalry into the far turn. Frisky was cheek by jowl with Real Cash, a speedball, and they swept past the six-furlong mark in 1:11 flat, still a sprinting pace, and it was there Stevens felt Frisky kick into another gear and surge forward. The chestnut looked like a Derby winner. "He accelerated real easy," said Stevens. "He pulled me to the lead and I thought the race was ours."
But the race had only just begun. Squall moved closer to the pacesetters down the backstretch, while a few lengths behind, events were breaking beautifully for Perret. As they neared the turn, Land Rush suddenly bobbled in front of Unbridled, drifting to the right and opening a hole. Perret, seeing his chance, sent Unbridled through it: "When that door opened, I said, 'Now's the time!' He had dead aim." Through his binoculars, Nafzger saw Unbridled begin to run, and he shouted to his owner:
"He's making a nice move, Mrs. Genter. He's now up to fifth!"
Mister Frisky swept around the bend, leading the charge past the three-eighths pole, and here was the moment that everyone had been waiting for. Summer Squall was moving to Mister Frisky. Behind Squall, Perret was in the ideal spot to pounce on both. After getting through that hole, Perret had seen Squall in front of him and had angled Unbridled right behind him. "I didn't want to get behind horses that were stopping," said Perret. "I wanted to get behind a horse who would be finishing. When I found Summer Squall, I said, 'Here's my shot!' "
Perret chirped to Unbridled and the colt took off. Frisky was already getting late—he ran the fourth quarter in :27, buggy-horse time—when Stevens asked him for what he had. There wasn't much. "He gave me a response for five or six strides and he was just done," Stevens said. "It just wasn't there."
"He's third, Mrs. Genter! He's up there!"
As the horses bounded toward the quarter pole, Summer Squall snatched the lead. Turning for home, all Day had in front of him was the wide, flat expanse of the homestretch. He had ridden seven Derby horses in the last nine years but had never won. The closest he had come was second place in the last two, failing by a neck to catch Winning Colors with Forty Niner in '88, and last year falling 2½ lengths short of Sunday Silence on Easy Goer. Now he was dashing for the quarter pole and waiting to ask Squall for one final run. "I wouldn't have traded places with anybody," Day said.
That was when he glanced over his right shoulder and saw Unbridled, with Perret folded up on him, a length away. Just then, Squall pricked his ears and seemed to hesitate. "It's like entering a tunnel there," said Day. "There's a lot of color and activity on both sides, with the crowd roaring, and he seemed to lose his concentration." Day reached back and strapped the colt lefthanded with his whip, but Squall barely responded.
Perret had seen all he needed to see. "I had looped up on him pretty easy and I saw Pat when he went to hit the horse. He was still right there next to me; his horse dug in, but he didn't break loose from me. That's when I said, 'You're mine!' "
"He's taking the lead, Mrs. Genter, he's taking the lead! He's gonna win, Mrs. Genter, he's gonna win! He's gonna win!"
Day went to the whip again and again, riding furiously, desperately trying to stay in the race. "I changed holds on him," said Day. "I hit him right-and lefthanded. I got him to change leads. I did every thing I knew to do."
As they raced past the eighth pole, Unbridled was a length in front and Perret was whipping him righthanded. The big bay surged away, quickly opening two lengths and then three as they drove toward the wire. All of which led, finally, to one of the most memorable, magical scenes ever witnessed at the spectacle that is this race. In the clubhouse seats, Mrs. Genter anxiously held her hand to her mouth, straining to see the last yards of the race. Unbridled hit the wire and Perret waved his stick in the air. Nafzger's voice grew louder, nearly breaking:
"We won it! You won the Kentucky Derby! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you!"
The first time past the spires, Unbridled (yellow cap) lay 11th, beside Pleasant Tap.
On the turn for home, Summer Squall (inside) led Unbridled by a neck, but the big bay pulled away in the stretch to win by 3½ lengths.
As Unbridled headed for the wire, Nafzger shouted, "He's on the lead, Mrs. Genter!"
Perret brandished his whip in triumph after guiding the 11-1 shot to racing immortality.
It took more than 50 years, but Mrs. Genter (black hat) finally had her Derby winner.