05/14/2007 11:00PM

Hunch player with business smarts


On the face of it, Jim Tafel doesn't seem the type to let his heart rule his head. When his homebred Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby, Tafel simply smiled, then turned left to shake hands with his longtime trainer, Carl Nafzger, as if they had just concluded a particularly satisfactory deal.

In a way, they had. Tafel and Nafzger have been a team since the mid-1980's and tried to win the Derby once before in 1999 with Vicar, who finished 18th behind Charismatic. Street Sense's victory was a long time coming for Tafel, and it vindicated the clear-eyed business sense that he has applied to his Thoroughbred breeding and racing business. But there's also a passionate, risk-taking side to Tafel, and chances are he never would have come up with Street Sense if he hadn't listened to that impulse back in 2003.

"Some of my friends weren't too enthusiastic about the breeding, because it was using an unproven stallion with an unproven broodmare," Tafel, 83, said of the mating of the stallion Street Cry to Bedazzle that begat the Derby winner. "So I guess that's a bunch of nonsense that produced Street Sense."

In fact, if he hadn't been a little impulsive, Tafel might never have gotten into the horse business in the first place.

Growing up during the Great Depression in Pittsburgh in the 1930's, Tafel couldn't have imagined that some day he would pay $30,000 for a stud fee, let alone that he would own a champion now potentially worth as much as a good-sized company. His father died when he was a small child, and Tafel said he was an aimless young man until he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, a decision that gave him focus and discipline.

When Tafel left the service in 1945, he set about making his career, rising from an advertising sales position to chairman and CEO of Technical Publishing Co., a publisher of trade and professional journals. As he rose, Tafel made business contacts with men such as Leslie "Tiny" Welsh, CEO of Studebaker-Worthington, who introduced him to the sport of kings.

"He took me down to the Keeneland sales in the late 70's, and, of course, I had never seen anything like that," Tafel recalled. "I was just awed by the amount of money that was being paid. This was the July sale, and there were some Northern Dancer horses in there, and you know the prices they were bringing then. My friend said, 'Keep your damn hands down!' "

Tafel did, for a while. Initially, he was too cautious to jump into the booming Thoroughbred market or even take out an owner's license.

"Someplace in Damon Runyon's writings, he said, 'All horseplayers die broke,' " Tafel said. "I'd been broke, and I didn't want to be broke again. So I was a reluctant bride. I was very cautious."

The excitement of the auctions pulled Tafel in, but not until he had retired. In 1985, an impulse got the better of him as he sat in the Keeneland sale pavilion getting bored. He raised his hand and bought a $40,000 Green Forest colt he later named Hipshot.

"They bring in this horse, and I liked the looks of him and I bought him," he said. "We called him Hipshot because there was no vetting, nothing. I can't even remember whether he ever won. But that points out how naive I was."

Naive, maybe, but also keen. After taking shares in a few of Dogwood Stable's syndicated runners, including 1985 Rothmans International winner Nassipour, he was determined to strike out on his own.

"He walked up to me one morning and said, 'Carl, I want to buy a racehorse,' " recalled Nafzger, who met Tafel through the early partnerships. "I said, 'Okay,' and he said, 'I want to buy one today.' I said, 'Wait a minute, what do you really want to do in the horse business?' "

Tafel gradually developed a program to breed and race, and his best runners have come from his own breeding program, including 1998 champion 3-year-old Banshee Breeze. He also raced Travers Stakes winner Unshaded, graded winners Coolawin, Til Forbid, and Metfield, and graded-placed stakes winner Binalong.

"I don't think I'm all that sophisticated," said Tafel, who lives in Boynton Beach, Fla., with Ida Mae "Gus" Tafel, his wife of 51 years. "I've just tried to use good business practices, and I've looked at a lot of horses over the years. I'm certainly not a conformation expert or pedigree expert. Far from it. But I have people who help me with that."

"He's an extremely good businessman, and he's the kind of guy that's very loyal," said Nafzger, 65. "He keeps his advisers to a small number, and we work together to get all sides of an issue. We bring different points to the table, and Mr. Tafel decides. He has put it all together and learned all three elements of the Thoroughbred business: racing, breeding, and selling."

Two key advisers are Nafzger and Headley Bell, 52, of Nicoma Bloodstock. But when it came to the selection of Street Cry for the 2003 mating of Bedazzle, Tafel had firm ideas of his own.

"Mr. Tafel has Headley Bell and myself go over the mares, and we've all got suggestions," Nafzger said. "When we got down to Bedazzle, he showed his veto power right quick. He said, 'Guys, think what you want to and do what you want to, but I've got the most votes, and we're going to Street Cry.' "

Tafel first saw Street Cry, a Machiavellian colt, when Street Cry defeated Unshaded and the rest of the field in the 2001 Stephen Foster Handicap. Tafel frankly says he fell in love with Street Cry for his talent and, he admits, charisma. When Street Sense was foaled on Feb. 23, 2004, at Chesapeake Farm near Lexington, Tafel saw similar promise right away.

"You never know what you're going to get, really," he said. "But this colt, every time I would visit him in Lexington, he got better and better. He was different. He had presence about him, even as a baby."

Tafel got something extra special out of that mating of Street Cry and Bedazzle: a champion 2-year-old and the first horse to win both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby. But he won't be able to duplicate the mating. Tafel has scaled his broodmare band down to about 10 in recent years, and one of the mares he sold was Bedazzle. A partnership led by Nafzger bought the 10-year-old Dixieland Band mare for $180,000 at the 2005 Keeneland November auction, then sold her privately last year to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum for an undisclosed amount.

"Let's put it this way: it was a wonderful story," Nafzger said.

Tafel has no regrets. He's keeping Bedazzle's daughter Elusive Sparkle, a daughter of Elusive Quality who is now 2. And he has Street Sense. To Tafel's business mind, there probably is a price he can put on Street Sense, although he won't reveal it until at least the end of the Triple Crown campaign. In the meantime, that campaign is about things that are priceless, like Derby fever and a place in the history books.

"I may have looked cool on the outside, but not inside," Tafel said. "We had Derby fever probably most waking moments. You dream about it, you really do. I did. And I dreamed that we won."