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Nafzger on his way out, and loving it
After rushing to the winner's circle, then to a postrace press conference, then to the traditional toast to the winners in the Kentucky Derby museum, trainer Carl Nafzger stood off to the side of the museum, watching a video of the 133rd Derby, which his colt Street Sense had won a little more than an hour earlier. As Street Sense came to the wire, Nafzger, his mischievous eyes alight, turned and said, "It gets better than I thought it would," then let out a hearty laugh.
Nafzger, 65, is winding down a training career that has seen him win the Derby twice with just three starters. He has turned over the bulk of his stable to his longtime assistant, Ian Wilkes. But the adrenaline junkie in him isn't going to just walk away. Not from his longtime clients, like Jim Tafel, who bred and owns Street Sense. Not from his extended family at the barn, where in a sport known for its transience Nafzger has had employees with him for decades. And not from a lifestyle he thoroughly enjoys.
"I never get tired of it," he said. "You've got to have destinations."
Oh, the places Nafzger has been. "If you don't believe in God, just look at my life," he said. "It's been a miracle."
Nafzger grew up in tiny Olton, Texas, more interested in riding bulls than training horses. "Ever seen 'The Last Picture Show'?" he said, referring to the 1971 movie based on Larry McMurtry's novel. "That's what Olton was like."
Nafzger was an accomplished rodeo rider, and made the national finals from 1963-65. While in Cheyenne, Wyo., he met his wife, Wanda, a native of South Dakota who was teaching children with learning disabilities.
"We met through a very dear friend of mine who Carl was traveling with," Wanda said. "He was rodeoing at the time. Out West, that's our sport. Some people have baseball season, or football season. We have rodeo season. Bronc riders and rodeo cowboys, they're special athletes as far as I'm concerned."
They also get beat up.
"I broke my nose seven times," Nafzger said. "If you ride bulls, it's not if you're going to get hurt, it's when are you going to get hurt. I've had a rod in my left leg since 1966. In racing, you get beat up a lot more mentally. Rodeo beats you up more physically."
Tired of the aches and pains from riding, but desirous of remaining around animals, Nafzger turned to training racehorses.
"I got into the game because one horse was worth about 10 cows," Nafzger said. "With 10 mares, I had a 100-cow outfit. I really enjoy the horse. If you can't enjoy a $5,000 claimer giving 110 percent, you're in the wrong business."
One of Nafzger's first big breaks came in the early 1980s, when he caught the attention of Hall of Famer John Nerud, who had stopped training but was overseeing the operation for James Binger's Tartan Farms. As he had with another up-and-comer named D. Wayne Lukas, Nerud sent some horses Nafzger's way.
"That was when I went from Carl Who to Carl Says," Nafzger said. "Racing secretaries would look at my stall application without throwing it in the trash."
In 1990, Nafzger won his first Derby, with Unbridled. Nafzger, who has a homespun way about him, enjoys recalling some of the folk wisdom he heeded that week.
Speaking of the founder of Taylor Made Farm, Nafzger said: "Joe Taylor told me, 'Those other trainers will mess their horses up. Don't mess yours up.' "
That dovetails with Nafzger's belief that the horse dictates what you do. "Like Allen Jerkens said, 'Sometimes we do quite a bit. Most of the time, we do very little,' " Nafzger said.
Nafzger's description of the Derby to Unbridled's elderly owner, Frances Genter - captured by ABC Sports - is one of the greatest moments in Derby history. It is also illustrative of Nafzger's magnanimous personality. He takes great pleasure in seeing other people do well.
Or, as Nafzger likes to say in his folksy manner, "There's three things in life: accomplishing, helping, and accumulating."
Let's take them in alphabetical order.
Accomplishing - Nafzger has won two Derbies, an Eclipse Award as champion trainer, the Breeders' Cup Classic with Unbridled, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Street Sense, and Eclipse Awards with Banshee Breeze and Unbridled.
Accumulating - How do you measure this? Nafzger has got more than enough, be it respect from peers, admiration from employees, or hardware from trophies.
Helping - Nafzger practices the art of "pay it forward." Years ago, he literally wrote the book on training racehorses, "Traits of a Winner: The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Horses," and he'll often sprinkle in passages from the book when answering questions. More recently, though, Nafzger has aided Wilkes in getting started as a trainer; the two share Barn 26 at Churchill Downs, and have more horses at a nearby private training facility.
Nafzger and Wilkes, 41, are more than mentor and protege. Wilkes first worked for Nafzger in the late 1980s and was the exercise rider for Unbridled when he won the Derby. After returning for two years to his native Australia, Wilkes came here for good in 1993 with wife Tracy, daughter Shelby, and son Brodie in tow. The Nafzgers have no children; the Wilkeses are like family to them.
"We're very close," Wanda said.
"Carl and Wanda are like our American parents, and they're like grandparents to our kids," Wilkes said. "All our family is in Australia, but we feel like we have family here."
Though Nafzger is listed as the trainer on horses owned by Tafel and longtime client Bentley Smith, and Wilkes is listed as the trainer for the rest of the stable, they operate as a team.
"We might disagree about something, but we'll talk about it," Wilkes said.
Sometimes, Nafzger's horses will go out in the morning wearing the saddle cloth of Wilkes's. Both have red towels with white lettering. Nafzger has an "N" on his towels, Wilkes has a "W" formed by crossing two boomerangs.
Wilkes's involvement has taken some of the pressure off Nafzger, and it shows. The week of the Derby, Nafzger was relaxed, playful, and very, very confident in Street Sense.
"He's a lot more relaxed," Wilkes said. "He's enjoying it. He enjoyed the week. He had a lot of fun with it."
It may be twilight on Nafzger's career, but he's not about to let the sun set just yet.
"You know how I know I'm doing so good?" he said. "All the jock's agents are laughing at my jokes again."