05/03/2017 6:16PM

Apprentice turned master, Wilkes takes his turn in Derby spotlight

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Debra A. Roma
Carl Nafzger (left) and Ian Wilkes have been working together for nearly 30 years.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It was an early-spring morning at Keeneland in 1989 when one of Carl Nafzger’s horses came galloping by, with his newly hired exercise rider impressing the trainer.

“Sharon,” he said, turning to his assistant, Sharon Peters, “don’t let that Australian boy out of my sight.”

Nearly 30 years on, Nafzger and that onetime rider, Ian Wilkes, have not let each other out of their sights. Nafzger, the onetime bronco rider from West Texas who is now 75, and Wilkes, 51, the son of a dairy farmer in New South Wales, have forged a relationship that has brought them great personal joy and professional success, including a pair of Kentucky Derby wins.

Wilkes – who took over Nafzger’s barn when Nafzger began transitioning into semi-retirement a little more than a decade ago – will go for his first Kentucky Derby victory since he became a head trainer when he sends out McCraken on Saturday. And if he pulls it off, no one will be more proud than Nafzger. Wilkes and his family are like children and grandchildren to Nafzger and his wife of 49 years, Wanda, who never had children of their own.

“They are our family,” Nafzger said at Churchill Downs. “In our minds, they’re our kids. It’s an unbelievable relationship. Wanda and I couldn’t ask for anything greater than to have the relationship we have with Ian and Tracey and their kids.”

“I call them my American parents,” said Wilkes, who has two children, daughter Shelby and son Brodie, with Tracey, his wife of 26 years. “They’re very much like grandparents to our kids. What Carl has done for Tracey and I is tremendous.”

The first seed of the Nafzger-Wilkes partnership was planted in the fall of 1988. Wilkes was working for famed Australian trainer Colin Hayes but wanted to work in the United States and knew an Australian woman who had worked for Nafzger. With that entrée, he called Nafzger and was hired, sight unseen. But it took six months for his visa to be approved, during which time Wilkes met Tracey, also a native Australian.

Wilkes so impressed Nafzger that by the spring of 1990, one year after he started working for Nafzger, Wilkes was the exercise rider for the stable star, Unbridled. On May 5 of that year, Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby.

That fall, Unbridled added the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Wilkes’s work visa expired the next day, so less than 24 hours after Unbridled won the Classic, Wilkes and Tracey returned to Australia.

“Carl said, ‘If you ever come back, you’ve got a job,’ ” Wilkes recalled.

For three years, Wilkes trained in Australia, but with little success.

“I had horses that I could hop off and run faster than,” he said. “I mismanaged my business. Really screwed up. I didn’t know how to handle money. But it was the best lesson I learned.”

Wilkes reached out anew to Nafzger. “Is that job still open?” he inquired. Nafzger said it was, but it took a year for Wilkes to obtain a new visa to return to the United States.

“I gave up the horses, moved to Western Australia, where Tracey is from,” said Wilkes, who grew up in the Hunter Valley. “I cooked at a fish-and-chips shop, dug spuds, mowed lawns.”

Upon returning to the United States with Tracey and their two kids, Wilkes cemented his relationship with Nafzger. He was officially the assistant trainer when Nafzger won his second Derby, with Street Sense in 2007, but by then, Nafzger was winding down his Hall of Fame career – he was training for a handful of longtime clients – and Wilkes was the beneficiary, with Nafzger basically turning over his stable to Wilkes.

“How many people step back and turn their whole stable over?” Wilkes said. “You don’t see that very often.”

“It’s really been great watching him,” Nafzger said. “Without him, it was over. He’s just taken it to a higher level. I can’t say enough about what he’s done. He’s an unbelievable horseman. He has a natural feel for the horse. I’ve learned a lot from him. And he learned a lot from me.”

It stands to reason that Nafzger influenced the way Wilkes approaches his craft. As with Nafzger, Wilkes has demonstrated the uncanny ability to build his horses toward a peak performance when it matters most, most notably with Fort Larned in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But there are nuances from Nafzger that Wilkes embraced, including jogging a horse the day after a workout followed by a walk day, a schedule that the majority of trainers do in reverse. Nafzger explained years ago that he thought it was best to have his horses do something light the day after a race, just to stay limber and get rid of lactic acid.

The ability to remain focused on a main target came in handy for Wilkes this year when McCraken had a minor setback that kept him out of the Tampa Bay Derby. From that point on, Wilkes was solely focused on getting him to the Derby in the best shape possible.

“When you’re trying to get ready for this race,” Wilkes said of the Derby, “you’ve got to look at the whole picture. When you point a horse to a race, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.”

“He’s like I am – he lets the horse train him,” Nafzger said. “He did the right thing and backed off. Hopefully, he’ll have a great Derby Day.”

Both Wilkes and Nafzger have an easygoing manner and a quick wit. They have inspired loyalty with the way they treat their employees. Carlos Tinajero, the current assistant, has been with the outfit since 1989. Alejandro Herrera, McCraken’s groom, has been with Nafzger and Wilkes since 1994. Yoni Orantes, McCraken’s exercise rider, has been with Wilkes for nearly a decade. Another exercise rider, Karen Salisbury, has been with the barn since 1998. And there are numerous other grooms and exercise riders who have been with them for more than a decade.

That the core of his operation has stayed intact, and that Wilkes has done well on his own, gives Nafzger great satisfaction.

“Wanda and I enjoy watching people and horses develop to their fullest,” he said.

Nafzger looked after the barn for three weeks in December when the Wilkeses returned to Australia to visit family – “I left my Hall of Fame assistant in charge,” Wilkes said – but this is fully Wilkes’s show. Nafzger spends the winter in Florida, and though he speaks with Wilkes almost daily and comes out to the Palm Meadows training center where Wilkes is based in the winter about four to five times a week for brief visits, Nafzger is enjoying being semi-retired.

The visits are on a personal level more than a professional one. When he showed up at Churchill Downs last weekend after arriving from Florida, Nafzger said he was “here for the hoopla – and to terrorize Ian.”

“This is the best job I’ve ever had – second-guessing,” he joked.

“He’s a Monday-morning quarterback at the moment,” Wilkes said.

On Saturday, all the wisdom Wilkes has gleaned, all the lessons Nafzger taught him, all the skill he has brought to the equation, will be realized for Wilkes in the space of about two minutes. Wilkes has been through the Derby before – as an exercise rider and an assistant – but now he’s the one in charge. If McCraken wins, that boy from Down Under will be up top.