On a warm wintermorning at a South Florida thoroughbred training center, Carl Nafzger talkedwith a visitor while a young colt watched from his stall not 10 feet away. Thenation's 2-year-old champion in 2006, Street Sense had not run a race in thenew year, and here it was the last day of February. The Kentucky Derby loomedin the distance. "He's a phenomenal horse," said Nafzger, a 65-year-oldTexan with a weed-whacker drawl and one Derby victory already on his résumé."But wherever we're going, it's up to him to take us there. We'll just goalong."
Here, then, is aDerby story built on faith. Together three men would follow the horse: the83-year-old owner, James Tafel, whose instinctive matching of stallion and mare(a mating that experts told him would never produce greatness) begat StreetSense; the trainer, Nafzger, who refused to take the conventional path toLouisville; and the underappreciated jockey, Calvin Borel, who waited nearlyall of his 40 years for the chance to sit astride an animal like this one.
They believed inthe horse, and they believed in each other, and at 6:18 last Saturday evening,Borel carried Tafel's royal-blue-and-gold racing silks beneath the wire atChurchill Downs, 2 1/4 lengths clear of Hard Spun and eight long lengths aheadof morning-line favorite Curlin, who finished third in his fourth career start."Greatest moment of your life," Borel would call it after a daring andprofessional ride.
The third-largestcrowd (156,635) in the 133-year history of the Derby saw Street Sense becomethe first Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion to follow with a victory in the Runfor the Roses. Attention turns to the May 19 Preakness and perhaps beyond, tothe June 9 Belmont Stakes, as Street Sense, a strapping and dominant dark bay,is next in line to try to end a Triple Crown drought that has reached 28 years,the longest ever.
"Now, Isuppose, everyone is going to want to know if he can [win] somewhere else, orif he can run back and do it in two weeks," said Nafzger after the race, ashe sipped Kentucky bourbon over ice from a plastic cup at the postrace party atthe Kentucky Derby Museum. "I'll just say this: What a horse."
Their journeybegan 23 years ago with a meeting at Arlington Park, outside Chicago. Tafel hadjust retired as a publishing executive and, as he prepared to plunge intoracing, was looking for someone to train his horses. Nafzger was pure cowboy.He had been a professional bull rider in his 20s and then broken horses at aranch in Cheyenne, Wyo., where his wife, Wanda (to whom he has been married for39 years), was teaching special education. He began training thoroughbredsseriously in 1971 but didn't get his big break until John Nerud, a New Yorktrainer, and Frances Genter, an owner from the Midwest, sent him horses atArkansas's Oaklawn Park in 1982.
Tafel became areliable and passionate owner and Nafzger a respected trainer. In 1990 Nafzgersaddled Unbridled for his first Derby victory, a TV broadcast best rememberedfor his touching commentary to the 92-year-old Genter. He also had success withTafel's horses, including Vicar, who won two Grade 1 preps but finished 18th inthe 1999 Derby, and Unshaded, who ran third in the 2000 Belmont but--morememorably for Tafel--was crushed two years later by Street Cry in the StephenFoster Handicap.
"I decided Iwas going to breed to that horse that dusted us off," Tafel recalls. That'swhat he did in 2003, sending his mare, Bedazzle, to Street Cry, a rookiestallion. "People told me, 'Not Street Cry,'" says Tafel. "But Iremembered him, so I [went ahead]."
Street Sense wasfoaled on Feb. 23, 2004, at Chesapeake Farm in Kentucky. "The day he wasborn, I told Jim [Tafel] that this was the best-looking foal I'd seen in 10years," says Chesapeake president Drew Nardiello. "He stayed for 20months, and every day he became more mature and precocious."
He was broken atOcala Stud in Florida and made his debut with Borel aboard last July. He wouldrun five times as a 2-year-old, culminating with a 10-length victory in theJuvenile at Churchill Downs--a race in which Borel boldly took the railentering the stretch, foreshadowing his Derby win. Afterward Nafzger recoiledin mock terror after a reporter asked for his cellphone number. "Oh, no,it's starting already," he said, before yielding the information.
In one regardStreet Sense has been invigorating for Nafzger. In late 2005 he turned overalmost all the horses in his barn to longtime assistant Ian Wilkes, keepingonly those belonging to Tafel and Bentley Smith, Genter's son-in-law. But inanother way the horse was exasperating. "We started working him in January,and he just wasn't into it," says Wilkes. "He was anxious, distracted.We had to wait until he was ready."
Here was thelesson that some trainers never learn but that Nafzger grasped so well."Training is like painting a wall," he says. "You've got bepatient. If you put that second coat on too early, you'll mess it up."
Still, with thelate start, Street Sense would have only two preps as a 3-year-old, and onlyone horse in the last 60 years--Sunny's Halo in 1983--had won the Derby off twopreps. Nafzger opened the campaign on March 17, when Street Sense held offhighly regarded Any Given Saturday to win the Tampa Bay Derby. Four weeks laterStreet Sense was second by a nose in the Blue Grass Stakes, bumped in thestretch after a slow pace, leaving Borel in tears on the track at KeenelandRace Course. "I'm sorry, boss," he said to Nafzger.
Nafzger could havereplaced Borel with a bigger-name rider long before the Blue Grass. Manytrainers would have. "I never thought about it," Nafzger said justbefore the Derby. "He's my rider. He's ridden big races for me."
Last Saturday,Borel rode one of the best Derbys in recent history and afterward cried onlytears of joy. With his mount starting as the 9--2 favorite, Borel skillfullyeased Street Sense inside and found the rail before entering the first turn,saving precious ground. He was in 19th place, second-to-last, after a half mileand still 17th after three quarters. "I wasn't worried," said Calvin'sbrother Cecil, 53, a Churchill-based trainer. "Calvin was sitting chilly.He's patient. He's been patient his whole life."
In the middle ofthe far turn Borel finally asked Street Sense for run, and the colt, still onthe rail, began inhaling the field. "He went by me so fast, I wasn't surewhich horse it was," said Edgar Prado, who was on Scat Daddy. WhenLiquidity drifted wide near the top of the stretch, Street Sense shot by himand then darted outside past Sedgefield. It was as if Borel were riding asquirrel instead of a horse. He reeled in pacesetter Hard Spun inside theeighth pole and pumped his whip into the air at the finish.
The win completeda long climb for a respected jockey whose acclaim lags behind his production(more than 4,300 career wins) but whose work ethic is boundless and egononexistent. To wit: Two weeks ago Borel mucked stalls in Calvin's barn toready it for horses shipping in from Louisiana.
Racing is in hisfamily's blood. Calvin was the last of five sons born to Clovis and Ella Borel,13 years after his next-oldest brother. The family nicknamed him Boo, short forboo-boo, as in accident. All five Borel boys learned to ride in the sugarcanefields near their home in southern Louisiana and graduated to the wild racingat bush tracks in their early teens. Calvin had a five-foot-tall Welsh ponynamed Charlie, whom older brother Carol says Calvin rode through the Borelhouse.
"You mean nearthe house?" Carol is asked.
"No, I meanright through the house," says Carol, 57, in a thick, Cajun accent.
Borel lives in theLouisville Highlands with his fiancée, Lisa Funk, 28, whom he met in 2001 whileFunk was working at Churchill Downs after her freshman year in college. It wasFunk who three days before the Derby chided Borel after he gave himself a blackeye by letting a trash-can bungee cord hit him. "He was trying to be likeRed Pollard," she said, referring to the Seabiscuit jockey who was blind inone eye.
They are perfectfor each other: Borel, who left school in eighth grade, rides horses, and Funkruns their household. After the Derby, Funk became incensed when asked about astory in the Daily Racing Form that said Calvin "struggles withilliteracy."
"That pissedme off," says Funk. "He can read enough to get by, and we have spent alot of time in the last few years trying to find time to fit that in ourschedule, to sit down with him and to help him with that." Intelligence canbe measured many ways: Borel's Derby trip was a slice of riding genius.
As night fell onChurchill Downs, Nafzger worked the room at the postrace party. He couldscarcely move 10 steps without being hugged. Fellow trainer Bob Baffert, whosaddled Derby winners in 1997, '98 and 2002, approached, and they shared amemory. In the fall of '97 Nafzger found Baffert signing autographs at anappearance in Louisville. As a joke, Nafzger got in line, and Baffert signed aphoto with the words, carl, one derby is enough. The following spring Baffertwon again, and Nafzger told him, "You're a liar; you said one isenough." Said Baffert, "I was wrong. Two is better."
Now here, in theshadow of champions, the trainers embraced, and then Nafzger wagged a finger,"You were right," he said to Baffert. "Two is better."
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On his handling of Street Sense, Nafzger says,"Training is like PAINTING A WALL. You've got to be patient. If you putthat second coat on too early,you'll mess it up."
"He went by me so fast, I wasn't sure which horseit was," Prado said. When Street Sense darted past Sedgefield, it was as ifBorel were RIDING A SQUIRREL instead of a horse.
HOME RUNMoments after he directed Street Sense around the final turn, Churchill Downsregular Borel celebrated his finest hour.
Photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier
[See caption above.]
Nafzger waited 17 years for his second Derby victory.
Street Sense (bottom left) was at the back of the pack around the first turn,but the calculating Borel was saving ground.
On the track where he won the Juvenile by 10 lengths, Street Sense roared by anovermatched Hard Spun (8).
Will Street Sense end the Triple Crown drought?