05/02/2007 11:00PM

Three know the scent of roses

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - "You know what I don't like about the press at the Derby?"

Carl Nafzger was talking, every word hopping along in his classic Texan twang.

"The only thing I don't like," he said, "is they don't show up Sunday morning."

They do if you win, to which Nafzger can testify firsthand, since he is one of only three trainers competing in the 133rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday who knows what it feels like to wake up Sunday morning still basking in that Derby winner's glow.

Only 17 trainers in the history of the Derby have won the race more than once. Nafzger, the man behind 1990 winner Unbridled, will try to join those 17 with Street Sense, the 2-year-old champion of 2006. John Shirreffs, who popped at 50-1 in 2005 with Giacomo, could win his second Derby in three years with Tiago, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. And Barclay Tagg, who bucked the odds in 2003 with the gelding Funny Cide, has a serious shot at Derby number two with Nobiz Like Shobiz, winner of the Wood Memorial.

It is no accident that the three men are back with contenders. For starters, neither Tagg, Shirreffs, nor Nafzger would ask a horse to run in the Derby unless he had a decent chance not only to run well, but to emerge from the experience relatively unscathed. All three understand that taking a horse to the Kentucky Derby is, at least in terms of prudent training, a deeply unnatural act.

"There are always a lot of nice 3-year-olds, and if you have one that maybe can make it to the Derby, you've got to do everything you can to help them get there," Shirreffs said. "But the one thing you can't do is try to make it with a colt who is not physically and mentally prepared, because that wouldn't be fair to the horse."

Such sentiments these days are commonly described as "old school," as if some hot new form of training model has replaced responsible horsemanship. Certainly, both Tagg and Nafzger would subscribe to the Shirreffs doctrine when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. All three trainers are in their 60s, but for all the talented young horses they may have handled through the years, they have had only two Derby starters each before Saturday's showdown. All three won the Derby in their first try.

"I had a colt named Cliquot who won the El Camino Real and finished third in the Wood," Shirreffs recalled. "Everybody wanted me to go to the Derby with him. But he was just exhausted. I had a lot of people mad at me, but you've got to be wise about these things."

In his book "Traits of a Winner: The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Racehorses," Nafzger writes, "Anyone can train a racehorse - but they will only become successful if they really learn to understand horses."

The best way to do that is give yourself over to to the animal world, and as soon as possible. Farmboy Nafzger was on bulls and broncos from the time he knew which end ate. Shirreffs, whose father was a pilot and an accomplished jump rider, was working with a crew of old Irish horsemen in a Long Island stable by age 11. Tagg, whose father sold appliances, had to search a little harder to find the life.

"I was just a bored kid living in a small town," said Tagg, a native of Lancaster, Pa. "I was lucky I found a stable."

Tagg ended up schooling show horses and riding jump races, and all three men were exposed at some point to classic Thoroughbred horsemanship. Nafzger was both inspired and supported by John Nerud (Dr. Fager, Gallant Man). Tagg worked for Hall of Famers Jonathan Sheppard (Storm Cat, Flatterer) and Frank Whiteley (Damascus, Ruffian, Forego), while Shirreffs worked for Brian Mayberry, the trainer of Kentucky Oaks winner Sardula, as well as Set Them Free, dam of both Giacomo and Tiago.

At the same time, the three trainers could not be more different in terms of personality.

Shirreffs can wax eloquently over the smallest details of hoof, hair, and nutrients, then lapse into a distracted stare, rifling through mental files that might hold the key to a question he might have asked himself the day before. Nafzger, a modern Will Rogers, responded to a question about the impact of this week's rain on the Derby by replying, "No rain, no flowers." Tagg, by his own admission, is wrapped way too tight, laser-focused and clinically unable to suffer time-wasting fools.

"I don't know John that well," Tagg said. "We've only crossed paths a couple times. But Carl is a good friend, and I respect him a lot. He's a very happy-go-lucky guy. And a bull rider . . . parentheses."

Yes, bulls. Shirreffs dabbled in his youth before deciding that he could communicate better with horses. Nafzger rode Brahmas professionally for 12 years.

"You can communicate with bulls," Nafzger said. "It's pretty simple. They want to kill you and you want to ride them."

Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, tend to be more complex. Watching horsemen like Nafzger, Tagg, and Shirreffs at work with Derby runners is a glimpse at rare craft in action, yet to a man they know who truly gets the credit.

"There are a million ways to train a horse, but it always comes down the the horse," Shirreffs said. "That's what I loved about the movie 'Phar Lap.' The trainer thought he had it figured out. He thought he knew the secret. What he really had was a great horse."