08/21/2007 12:00AM

Wilkes a big-time assistant

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The license plate on Tracey Wilkes's car reads BTTW, standing for Big-Time Trainer's Wife, a moniker jokingly placed on her a year ago by a racetrack publicist.

Though most people outside the world of Thoroughbred racing probably don't know Tracey's husband, Ian, he has played a big-time role in the success of Carl Nafzger, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, who will be an odds-on favorite to win Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes.

Ian Wilkes, 42, has been Nafzger's assistant since 1993, though he and Tracey, an exercise rider, actually began working for him in the spring of 1989. Coincidentally, that was the year Unbridled - the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner - came into Nafzger's barn.

Two years ago, as Nafzger, who turns 66 next Wednesday, began the gradual and ongoing process of retirement, he transferred a majority of his horses into Wilkes's name, in part to give his protege some recognition. Of the 49 horses the two have - split among Churchill Downs, Arlington, and Saratoga - 36 run in Wilkes's name.

Nafzger kept the horses owned by longtime clients Jim Tafel, who owns Street Sense, and Bentley Smith, the owner of Alabama winner Lady Joanne, in his name, though Wilkes is involved with each one's day-to-day training.

"Of course he got the good ones this year," Ian Wilkes said, smiling. "Somehow, he must have rubbed the crystal ball really good."

It didn't take long for Nafzger to see that Wilkes was someone he wanted working for him. In 1988, Wilkes was working for renowned trainer Colin Hayes at Lindsay Park, a racing facility in Australia. A person there who had worked for Nafzger suggested Wilkes contact Sharon Peters, Nafzger's Kentucky assistant, about a job.

Six months later, Wilkes got a visa to come to the U.S. and went to work as an exercise rider for Nafzger, who was immediately impressed with what he saw.

"Sharon said, 'Carl, that new boy's going to gallop,' so we walked up to the track to watch him," Nafzger recalled. "He galloped by me, and when he did I said to Sharon, 'Don't let that boy out of my sight.' He was a natural horseman and a natural on a horse."

Wilkes became the regular exercise rider of Unbridled, who won the 1990 Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic and was crowned 3-year-old champion.

The day after the 1990 Classic - and two months after their daughter Shelby was born - the Wilkeses were on a plane back to Australia, their visas having expired.

Back home, Ian Wilkes began training on his own, but soon realized he had nothing but slow horses.

"I could have got off and ran faster than them, that's how slow they were," said Wilkes, perhaps a bit spoiled from having been around Unbridled.

After two years, Wilkes inquired about returning to America to work for Nafzger, who said he would take him back. It took Wilkes another year to get his green card, during which time he held three jobs: cooking fish and chips, digging potatoes, and mowing lawns.

The Wilkeses returned to America in October 1993 and have been with Nafzger ever since, helping him develop the 3-year-old filly champion of 1998, Banshee Breeze; the 2000 Travers winner, Unshaded; and the multiple-graded-stakes winners Vicar, Solvig, and Lead Story.

In November 2005, Nafzger made it official that he was cutting back on his day-to-day training duties and put a majority of horses in Wilkes's name.

"We went to every owner and said 'We're going to put these horses in Ian's name,' " Nafzger said. "They said, 'That's great, we love Ian.' It gives me more time to observe and input, and it gives me more time to build into what I'm going to gradually build into, which is [ownership] management."

It also gave Nafzger time to take the longest vacation of his career last month when he and his wife, Wanda, went on a 10-day fishing trip to Alaska, something they paid for long before they knew Street Sense was going to accomplish what he did. During their vacation, Street Sense put in a much-ballyhooed five-furlong workout in 57 seconds at Churchill Downs.

"It takes the big pressure off the stable because Ian and Carl work very closely together," Wanda Nafzger said. "Ian's been associated with Carl all these years; he's invaluable as far as that goes. If we're elsewhere, not with the horse, if Ian gives him a report he knows exactly what Ian's talking about. The rapport is tremendous."

"Both of them have an opinion," Tracey Wilkes said. "Ian might not like Carl's and Carl might not like Ian's; we may go somewhere in the middle and get it done. He's never stopped Ian from trying something he wanted to try. He's never said, 'Now I want to do it my way.' "

Said Nafzger: "We're using mine and his brain and his brawn."

The relationship the Wilkeses have developed with the Nafzgers extends beyond the racetrack.

"It's family," said Tracey Wilkes, who also works in the guest services department at Churchill Downs. "We consider Carl and Wanda our kids' American grandparents, really."

With horses that have run under his name, Wilkes has won 42 races from 300 starters - including 8 for 97 this year - and earned $1,731,376. The one stakes victory under his name came here last year when Court Folly upset Songster in the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes.

Though Wilkes played a major role in developing Street Sense into the first horse to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby, he has no regrets that Nafzger has gotten the bulk of the accolades.

"Even if my name was on the program I still wouldn't want it to be me who won the Derby, because I don't get up in the morning and muck his stall, I don't brush him," Wilkes said. "I'm there, I'm a part of the team - I don't care which horse it is, it's a team effort. But it was satisfying for the whole team to win the Derby."

So does Wilkes someday dream of being that big-time trainer who gets horses like Street Sense and Lady Joanne?

"I just don't think about that, because I ain't looking for Carl to hang it up," he said. "I always kid with him, I say I got to keep the old fellow around. I enjoy having him around, it's a lot of fun."