03/13/2007 11:00PM

Big races all that matter to Nafzger


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Street Sense was crowned the nation's champion 2-year-old last season, and now Carl Nafzger, the colt's trainer, is starting the serious preparation that will lead him to the Kentucky Derby. But anything Nafzger accomplishes with Street Sense, or anything else that he does in his life, for that matter, will be regarded as an anticlimax.

There was one moment in Nafzger's 65 years that will always define him. If the sport had a time capsule, it would include a film clip of the trainer on the first Saturday in May 1990.

Nafzger was watching his stretch-runner, Unbridled, begin to launch his rally in the Kentucky Derby. Beside him was the colt's owner, 92-year-old Frances Genter. She hadn't wanted to attend the race, knowing that she would be better able to see and hear it on TV, but Nafzger insisted that she come, promising that he would be her eyes and ears. When Unbridled made his move, Nafzger told her, "He's taking the lead . . . There he is! There he is!" As Unbridled crossed the finish line, the trainer exclaimed, "You've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter! I love you!" Then he turned and kissed the frail little lady.

This was the first time that ABC had put a microphone on owners and trainers involved in the Derby. Nowadays everybody is self-conscious about it. But Nafzger had forgotten about the microphone, and his "I love you!" was such a genuine, unscripted burst of emotion that it touched a nationwide television audience. The Derby made page one of newspapers across the country not because of Unbridled's powerful win but because of the little old lady, the "I love you" and the kiss.

It was a moment that showed Thoroughbred racing at its best, demonstrating the powerful feelings that the sport can engender.

If Nafzger came across to the American viewing public as a soft-hearted soul, the image was not entirely correct. "It depends what day you catch me on," he said. This is, after all, a man who once competed in the rough-and-tumble of world of professional rodeo - he was a bull rider, ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Nafzger started training in the late 1960's, connected with some high-level owners in the 1980's and since that time has run an operation that could best be described as old school. He has had long-term relationships with most of his clients and with his staff as well. His assistant, Ian Wilkes, paid his dues for so long that Nafzger put most of the horses in his barn under Wilkes's name, helping the assistant make a name for himself, though it's basically a joint operation. The only horses who run in Nafzger's name are those owned by Bentley Smith, son-in-law of Mrs. Genter, who died two years after Unbridled's win, and James Tafel, breeder and owner of Street Sense and a client of Nafzger's for more than two decades.

"I like the way Carl thinks," Tafel said. "He always brings a horse along at the pace he thinks the horse needs to be developed."

In an era when top trainers seek to develop mega-stables and to win as many races as possible, Nafzger is content with limited ambitions.

He has always maintained a stable of moderate size - he has about 40 horses in his barn now - and he said almost proudly, "I don't have a high win percentage. We're trying to win the right races"- with an emphasis on right. Training mostly for breeders, he wants to win the races that will enhance horses' reputations when they go to stud.

Nafzger's two best colts have won the right ones. Unbridled was never particularly impressive before he captured the Derby. He delivered another peak performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, helping to earn Nafzger an Eclipse Award as the nation's leading trainer.

Street Sense hadn't done much of note before he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, though the people close to him thought he had star potential. When Tafel and Nafzger saw the youngster for the first time at Chesapeake Farm in Kentucky, the farm's owner, Drew Nardiello, told them: "He's so perfect he's got nowhere to go but down."

Street Sense won only one of his first four starts, but he showed flashes of the talent Nafzger knew he possessed. In the Breeders' Cup, everything fell into place. The leaders set a fast pace and weakened; jockey Calvin Borel found a clear path on the rail - which appeared to be very advantageous at Churchill Downs that day - and Street Sense exploded to score a 10-length victory, the biggest margin in the history of the Juvenile. Handicappers have been debating whether he is really as good as his margin of victory suggests or whether he looked good because of a perfect trip on the rail-biased Churchill track. The answer to their questions will start coming this week.

Street Sense will make his 3-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, when he will face Any Given Saturday, a formidable rival from Todd Pletcher's stable. Street Sense will have his second and final prep race in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Then he will run in the Kentucky Derby and try to emulate Unbridled's feat.

But he can't emulate him entirely. When Street Sense scored his victory at Churchill Downs in the fall, Nafzger's words to the owner were: "Tafel, you just won the Breeders' Cup!" There were no hugs and kisses. It would be nearly impossible to duplicate the emotional wallop of Unbridled's win for Frances Genter in 1990.

(c) 2007, The Washington Post