Updated on 09/15/2011 12:24PM

Unshaded: Sign of the times

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Unshaded (6) overtaking Albert the Great in the Travers. Unshaded injured a tendon in the race.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In a bygone era, Carl Nafzger probably would not have found himself in such an enviable position. But because Unshaded has fully recovered from a slight tendon injury that was surgically repaired in September, Nafzger will be able to saddle the gelding as a solid second choice Saturday in the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"In the old days, we'd have blistered him, fired him, turned him out, and prayed like hell that he'd come back okay," said Nafzger.

Instead, Unshaded underwent what Nafzger calls "The Bramlage Procedure," a state-of-the-art surgery that can repair tendons before they become major problems.

Unshaded was suffering from a slight separation in his front left tendon, apparently incurred during his narrow victory over Albert the Great in the Travers Stakes last August. Shortly afterward, the gelding was sent to Dr. Larry Bramlage, the noted Lexington veterinarian.

While tendons can be notoriously problematic in Thoroughbreds, and many injuries are irreparable beyond a certain point, Bramlage is able to mend smaller separations, lesions, or tears. In the case of Unshaded, the tendon injury was only "maybe a couple centimeters in length," said Nafzger. "It was strained and had filling in it, but there were no torn fibers."

The Bramlage procedure essentially aims to "release tension" from the affected area, said Nafzger. "He's been doing it for us for seven or eight years now. I've had horses claimed from me who've had the surgery, but the new trainer doesn't even know it. We've probably had the horses return successfully in 80 percent or better of the cases."

Some nine months after his surgery, Unshaded is bidding to rejoin what already has become a crowded group of tough handicap horses. A 4-year-old owned by Jim Tafel, Unshaded won a May 17 allowance race at Churchill in his only start since returning from the surgery.

While topweighted Captain Steve, winner of the $6 million Dubai World Cup in his latest start, figures as a solid favorite in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster, Unshaded appears to be his strongest challenger.

Unshaded's 2000 highlights were a victory in the Lexington Stakes in April; a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes in his only appearance in the Triple Crown; and his Travers triumph, which came in the final strides under Shane Sellers. From just 10 lifetime starts, he has earned nearly $1.1 million.

Although Unshaded's comeback victory came against far lesser company than what he will face Saturday, it was accomplished in precisely the manner Nafzger wanted. Unshaded bobbled at the start and raced fifth of six early in the 1 1/16-mile race and then had to be roused by jockey Robby Albarado before drawing off late to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Nafzger, a patient man known for bringing his horses along slowly in their training, knew the colt would need a somewhat taxing race if he was to be at his best for the Stephen Foster.

"The tendon deal, that's all behind us," said Nafzger. "If it was going to stop him, it'd have stopped him by now. His win the other day was just what we wanted. But he's got to step it up. He's catching one of the best older horses in the country Saturday."

Unshaded was ridden in his 1 1/4-length comeback victory by Robby Albarado, who has committed to him for the rest of the year. "Mr. Tafel and I came to the decision that we were tired of playing musical chairs with some of the jockeys, so we asked for a commitment," said Nafzger. Albarado, he said, "is one of the top riders going."

Unshaded, who breezed an easy five furlongs in 1:02.80 after the harrow break Tuesday morning at Churchill, has a come-from-behind style that took a while to develop. "He had a hard time before he figured out what racing was all about," said Nafzger. "He was still trying to find his balance, his focus. Focus is a word that works for racehorses. They've got to really dig down and give everything they've got if they're going to compete at the top level."

If his comeback is any indication, Unshaded should be competitive with Captain Steve and the other half-dozen or so horses expected Saturday for the 1 1/8-mile Foster.

"I've got him at 100 percent," said Nafzger. "But to run with the big ones, I've got to get him at 110 percent."

Nafzger said his ideal is to have Unshaded at 110 percent on Oct. 27, when the Breeders' Cup Classic is run at Belmont Park. Nafzger said Unshaded still has time to make a run for Horse of the Year honors, even having spotted a head start to his competition.

"That's what everyone with a good stakes horse is thinking at this time of year," said Nafzger. "That's what we're back here working for."

On Saturday, Unshaded will get his chance to start working toward that goal in earnest.