Last Friday morning, 31 hours before post time of the Florida
Derby, trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Shane Sellers had a
brief, at times spirited, conversation outside Nafzger's shed of
horses in the stable area at Gulfstream Park. Sellers would be
riding the Nafzger-trained Vicar, who was among the favorites in
the race, and now there was a touch of passion in the air.
Nafzger held out his hands as though snugging a pair of reins.
"He's all yours, and I've got him as ready as he can be," he
told Sellers. "This colt has done everything right. Just ride
your own race and get him to relax! I don't care where you put
him. Just get him to relax. Keep him out of trouble and just
don't let him get bumped around and shut off again."
Sellers nodded gravely as the master horseman spoke. "Carl,
listen," Sellers replied. "I want you to have confidence in
me--that when I put my helmet on and go out those doors, I'm as
professional as Jerry Bailey or any of the guys. I'm going to
ride him as good as they can ride him."
"Don't worry," said Nafzger. "I know that."
So it was that two of the hungriest horsemen on the road to the
May 1 Kentucky Derby--a trainer who has not had a Derby horse
since he sent Unbridled out to win the race nine years ago, and a
veteran jockey, one of the best in the game, who still yearns for
recognition--came to an understanding on the eve of the last
important Florida prep race leading to Louisville.
In 1990, Nafzger became a central figure in one of the most
touching dramas ever played out at Churchill Downs. Unbridled's
owner was the grand dame of American racing, 92-year-old Frances
Genter, a diminutive lady who could not see her horse running
from her box seat overlooking the track. So Nafzger, in a scene
captured by television cameras, called the race in her ear as
the horse gradually moved up until, finally, he was shouting to
her: "Here he comes, Mrs. Genter! You're going to win the
The 57-year-old Nafzger, a former bullrider, is a sharp,
resourceful horseman, but after Genter died in 1992, her family
began selling off its most prized bloodstock. And since Genter's
classy breeding operation had been the chief producer of
Nafzger's quality racing stock, Nafzger's fortunes on the track
began to wane. Last week he told the Los Angeles Times, "They
put me in wing tip shoes, but I know the way that this game
works, and I knew I'd be in loafers before long." Stabled at
Churchill Downs, he remained a steady presence at that madcap
scene in May but no longer an active player in it.
Then last year, with the man still in loafers, along came Vicar,
a nearly coal-black colt who had been purchased for $260,000 at
Keeneland's summer select yearling sale in 1997 by retired
Illinois magazine publisher James B. Tafel, one of the owners
who uses Nafzger. By the fall of '98, Nafzger knew he had a colt
with a nose for the roses again. Vicar ran three times last
year. He broke his maiden over seven furlongs in his first race,
winning by 1 1/2 lengths at Keeneland on Oct. 14; scored by 1
1/4 lengths in his second start, a mile race at Churchill Downs
on Nov. 4; and finished second by nearly two lengths to the more
seasoned Exploit in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
at the Downs on Nov. 28.
Vicar had three different jockeys in those three races. By the
time Nafzger wheeled him out for the Jan. 16 Holy Bull Stakes at
Gulfstream, his first 1999 Derby prep, he had chosen the gifted
Sellers to handle him. "I'm just a blue-collar guy who loves to
ride racehorses," Sellers says. He is also given to dwelling on
those occasions when trainers have replaced him on live horses
who had just lost--as when Sonny Hine took him off his regular
mount, Skip Away, in the summer of 1997, opening the way for
Bailey to take over for the rest of the horse's lucrative
career, and when D. Wayne Lukas took him off two of his stakes
winners, Cape Town and Yes It's True, in 1998. Sellers talks now
like a man haunted by those rebukes.
In the Holy Bull, riding to Nafzger's instructions, Sellers took
Vicar back and got snarled in first-turn traffic, brushing
horses, hitting the fence and losing all chance. He finished
fifth, beaten by 4 1/4, and Sellers thought for sure he would be
"yanked off the horse." What happened next, to Sellers, was a
kind of miracle. Nafzger took the blame and greeted him smiling.
"Don't worry," he told Sellers. "We tried something, and it
didn't work. We'll fix it up next time."
Five weeks later, setting the pace throughout, Vicar won the
Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, holding off Cat Thief in a long
drive to win by a neck. A day after Nafzger assured Sellers he
would not lose confidence in him, the trainer kept the rider
loose for the Florida Derby by telling him that there would
still be one more chance to get things right before the Derby.
"Have fun," he told his rider in the paddock. "If we need to
correct something, we'll do it in the Blue Grass [on April 10 at
Sellers had himself a ball, and he followed Nafzger's orders
perfectly. "I knew if I could get him on the outside of the
speed, I could get him to relax," Sellers said afterward. The
colt was running four-wide on the first turn, lying sixth outside
the speed and galloping along like a tourist taking in the
sights. Vicar stalked the leaders all the way to the final turn,
and when Sellers lashed him with his right-handed whip, he came
to the leaders by bounds. He snatched the lead from Cat Thief,
the 2-1 favorite, by the eighth pole and, in a breath-catching
finish, held off Wondertross, under Bailey, to win by the flare
of his licorice nose. "What a fighter!" Sellers said.
So was Wondertross, the colt owned jointly by New York Yankees
owner George Steinbrenner and Bill Condren, the man who led Go
for Gin into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle in '94.
Wondertross had run only once this year, winning an allowance
race at Gulfstream on Feb. 15 by half a length, and his narrow
loss on Saturday thrust him boldly into the Kentucky Derby
picture. The blocky, diminutive chestnut is expected to improve
greatly off that effort.
As is Vicar. So Nafzger is back, heading to the Derby with a
live wire--just as he did with Unbridled, who also won the
Florida Derby. "Of course I've missed it," Nafzger says. "But
here I am. I've got a racehorse. Hey, we're havin' fun again!"
It's only just begun.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Vicar, with Sellers (5) up, stalked the leaders, then passed Cat Thief at the eighth pole.
Plenty of questions remain to be answered before the field for
the 125th running of the Kentucky Derby is set, but this much is
certain: Bob Baffert has the best stable of 3-year-old
thoroughbreds in the world. As the May 1 Run for the Roses
approaches, here are a handful of horses worth keeping an eye on.
HORSE ODDS TRAINER SKINNY
Prime Timber 4-1 Bob Baffert San Felipe win last Saturday
came while wearing blinkers
for the first time
Vicar 5-1 Carl Nafzger Buoyed by his win in the
Florida Derby, but his times
Wondertross 5-1 Nick Zito Driving second in the Florida
Derby merits notice; he should
only get better
Cat Thief 10-1 D. Wayne Lukas After third-place finish at
Gulfstream, roses not in the
cards for a barn on the wane
Exploit 10-1 Bob Baffert The favorite until being run
down by Prime Timber in the
Worldly Manner 12-1 Saeed Bin Suroor Living up to his name, will
prep in Dubai late this month
Silverbulletday 12-1 Bob Baffert '98 Breeders' Cup champion
filly may be aiming for the
Kentucky Oaks on April 30
Straight Man 15-1 Bob Baffert Unraced as a 2-year-old,
talented colt may not even run
in the Derby