01/15/2003 12:00AM

Nafzger on winning a Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The drive for the Kentucky Derby gets under way in earnest Saturday with some of the East's better 3-year-old prospects engaged in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream while those in the West start in the Santa Catalina at Santa Anita.

This is the time of the year when Derby horses are made and when training strategies come under close scrutiny. Carl Nafzger remembers the winter of 1990, for Unbridled was coming to hand in a campaign that would climax in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. His reflections and recommendations are timely.

"Of all the advice I received while getting my horse ready, the most valuable, in my opinion, came from Joe Taylor, an outstanding Kentucky horseman," Nafzger said the other morning. "He told me not to worry about what the other Derby horses were doing. Concern yourself with your own horse, he told me, and do what your horse wants to do."

Unbridled, a big, muscular homebred bay colt by Fappiano who raced for Frances Genter of Minneapolis, made six starts at 2. He won his maiden at Arlington Park in early August, coming from far back in a field of 12 to win by more than 10 lengths.

"Horses need experience," Nafzger said, "but you don't want to do too much. You want a fresh horse for the Derby. Know your horse. If he gets experience as a 2-year-old, you don't have to be in a hurry to run him at 3. Once you feel you've got a Derby prospect, focus on that goal and don't be concerned about wins and losses during the approach. If your horse wins one of the prep races, you may have a better horse than generally regarded."

Unbridled, with a powerful finish from well off the pace, won the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder in his final 2-year-old appearance. Because he missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Nafzger ran him in the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1 as a newly turned 3-year-old. There was no pace in the race and Unbridled, normally a stretch runner, was just off the leaders. He got nothing but hot and dirty. However the lesson about pace was not lost.

Unbridled didn't run again until Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes. Reserved off the pace, he was in trouble repeatedly, yet was beaten only half a length, convincing Nafzger he was Derby material.

"A Derby horse has to have some talent," the trainer said. "He should be sound, and have a good immune system so that he doesn't get sick easily. And he should have a confident mind so that he can deal with adversity. Unbridled measured up and won the Florida Derby convincingly."

For his final start before the Kentucky Derby, Nafzger chose Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, even though Unbridled was at a disadvantage on a speed-favoring surface. He turned in a good effort three weeks before the Derby, finishing well to be third. After training well at Churchill Downs, he won a memorable Derby as the television cameras caught Nafzger describing the dramatic finish to the delighted owner.

The speedy Summer Squall got away from Unbridled in the Preakness and Nafzger says he ran a short horse in the Belmont Stakes.

Concerned about the demanding nature of the Triple Crown, he was too easy with his big colt, who finished fourth. He made an adjustment that fall when he returned to Belmont for the Breeders' Cup and Unbridled won the Classic in a manner befitting a champion.