05/14/2007 11:00PM

From one cowboy to another

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In 1957, when John Nerud was winning some of the biggest races in the land with Gallant Man, the 16-year-old Texan Carl Nafzger was, in his words, "just then starting to ride the big bulls." Horse racing was about the furthest thing from his mind.

By 1968, though, the year Nerud was running the table with Dr. Fager, Nafzger had left the bulls behind and was a raw rookie trainer with a one-horse stable at Ruidoso Downs, in the mountains of southern New Mexico. Five days before Nafzger's 27th birthday, on Aug. 24, 1968, Dr. Fager carried 134 pounds to a 10-length victory in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park near Chicago, running the mile in a world-record 1:32.20.

"Don't remember if I paid much attention to that," Nafzger recalled this week as he prepared Street Sense for the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. "I was galloping horses, ponying horses, shoeing pony horses, and training a horse called Sport Mobile. You did whatever you could to keep going."

By now everyone seems to know how the story turned out. Tapped by Nerud in 1982 to train a string of Tartan Farm-raised horses, Nafzger went on to become one of the most respected and successful trainers in the Midwest, eventually winning the 1990 Kentucky Derby with Unbridled and then later developing champion filly Banshee Breeze.

The current reign of Street Sense as the best of his generation has given a fresh audience of racing fans a chance to appreciate Nafzger's work. They can enjoy his down-to-earth horsemanship, and savor his endless supply of folksy quotes. But through it all, a single message keeps pounding through, delivered by the trainer at every turn: No Nerud, no Nafzger.

"Nerud taught me how to manage, he taught me breeding, he taught horse, and how racing relates to the horse," Nafzger said. "I would call him with a problem. This filly did this or that. John would say, 'Have you ever thought about . . . ?' It was just like somebody reaching up and pulling the cord on a light switch."

Nafzger likes to keep one of Nerud's best lines close at hand: "Keep 'em fat, keep 'em happy, work 'em a half-mile, and they'll win races for you." The practical application of the lesson was apparent from the very first draft of Tartan Farm horses who came into Nafzger's care, at Oaklawn Park in early 1982. A few weeks into their training, Carl called the boss.

"Well, Mr. Nerud, you lied to me," Nafzger said.

"What are you talking about?" Nerud demanded.

"You told me to keep to keep these horses fat, keep 'em happy, work 'em a half-mile, and they'll win races for me."

"What the hell's wrong with that statement?" Nerud was not amused.

"Mr. Nerud," Nafzger replied, "you could work these sonsabitches a quarter of a mile and they'd win races!"

From that day forth, the ice between the two men was officially broken. They spoke the same language.

"Like Nerud says, you can't learn to train horses," Nafzger said. "You've got that sixth sense or you don't. And there's been a lot of people had an opportunity to work with him, but only a damn few that succeeded to stay with him and succeed.

"The thing is, you couldn't b.s. Nerud," Nafzger added. "You had to know what you were talking about and do what you were talking about. If you didn't, he'd know. He was so far ahead of you, don't even think about lying to him."

True to form, Nerud does not overcomplicate his affection and respect for Nafzger.

"I figured we'd get along because we were just two old cowboys," Nerud said from his Long Island home. "When I asked him to come on down to the farm in Ocala to talk, he told me how he was wondering what in the world he'd learn from 'this old man.' We had a pretty good hour where he didn't say much at all."

Earlier this year, the industry recognized the 94-year-old Nerud with the Eclipse Award of Merit. On top of that, there is something historically satisfying about Nafzger commanding the Triple Crown stage on the 50th anniversary of Nerud's

3-year-old campaign with the remarkable stayer Gallant Man.

There is little doubt that Gallant Man should have won the 1957 Kentucky Derby, but he didn't, primarily because Bill Shoemaker mistakenly stood in the irons at the sixteenth pole and gave Bill Hartack and Iron Liege just enough of a breather to hold on by a nose.

"You can't get mad," Nerud insisted, although he had a right. "Because you can't turn back the clock. All I did was ask Shoemaker if he pulled the horse up. He said yes, and that was that. I had to look forward. I knew this was a colt who should win one of the Triple Crown races."

Nerud passed the Preakness, won by Bold Ruler, and ran Gallant Man instead in the Peter Pan, which he won without breaking a sweat. Two weeks later, as Gallant Man walked around the paddock before facing Bold Ruler in the Belmont Stakes, fellow trainer Max Hirsch needled Nerud with the comment, "Your colt looks fat, John."

"Well," Nerud shot back, "it's too late to train him. So let's go watch him run."

Gallant Man won by eight.