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Last Friday morning, 31 hours before post time of the Florida Derby, trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Shane Sellers' had a brief, at times spirited, conversation outside Nafzger's shed of horses in the stable area at Gulfstream Park. Sellers would be riding the Nafzger-trained Vicar, who was among the favorites in the race, and now there was a touch of passion in the air.
Nafzger held out his hands as though snugging a pair of reins. "He's all yours, and I've got him as ready as he can be," he told Sellers. "This colt has done everything right. Just ride your own race and get him to relax! I don't care where you put him. Just get him to relax. Keep him out of trouble and just don't let him get bumped around and shut off again."
Sellers nodded gravely as the master horseman spoke. "Carl, listen," Sellers replied. "I want you to have confidence in me—that when I put my helmet on and go out those doors, I'm as professional as Jerry Bailey or any of the guys. I'm going to ride him as good as they can ride him."
"Don't worry," said Nafzger. "I know that."
So it was that two of the hungriest horsemen on the road to the May 1 Kentucky Derby—a trainer who has not had a Derby horse since he sent Unbridled out to win the race nine years ago, and a veteran jockey, one of the best in the game, who still yearns for recognition—came to an understanding on the eve of the last important Florida prep race leading to Louisville.
In 1990, Nafzger became a central figure in one of the most touching dramas ever played out at Churchill Downs. Unbridled's owner was the grand dame of American racing, 92-year-old Frances Genter, a diminutive lady who could not see her horse running from her box seat overlooking the track. So Nafzger, in a scene captured by television cameras, called the race in her ear as the horse gradually moved up until, finally, he was shouting to her: "Here he comes, Mrs. Genter! You're going to win the Kentucky Derby!"
The 57-year-old Nafzger, a former bull-rider, is a sharp, resourceful horseman, but after Genter died in 1992, her family began selling off its most prized bloodstock. And since Genter's classy breeding operation had been the chief producer of Nafzger's quality racing stock, Nafzger's fortunes on the track began to wane. Last week he told the Los Angeles Times, "They put me in wing tip shoes, but I know the way that this game works, and I knew I'd be in loafers before long." Stabled at Churchill Downs, he remained a steady presence at that madcap scene in May but no longer an active player in it.
Then last year, with the man still in loafers, along came Vicar, a nearly coal-black colt who had been purchased for $260,000 at Keeneland's summer select yearling sale in 1997 by retired Illinois magazine publisher James B. Tafel, one of the owners who uses Nafzger. By the fall of '98, Nafzger knew he had a colt with a nose for the roses again. Vicar ran three times last year. He broke his maiden over seven furlongs in his first race, winning by 1� lengths at Keene-land on Oct. 14; scored by 1� lengths in his second start, a mile race at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4; and finished second by nearly two lengths to the more seasoned Exploit in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at the Downs on Nov. 28.
Vicar had three different jockeys in those three races. By the time Nafzger wheeled him out for the Jan. 16 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, his first 1999 Derby prep, he had chosen the gifted Sellers to handle him. "I'm just a blue-collar guy who loves to ride racehorses," Sellers says. He is also given to dwelling on those occasions when trainers have replaced him on live horses who had just lost—as when Sonny Hine took him off his regular mount, Skip Away, in the summer of 1997, opening the way for Bailey to take over for the rest of the horse's lucrative career, and when D. Wayne Lukas took him off two of his stakes winners, Cape Town and Yes It's True, in 1998. Sellers talks now like a man haunted by those rebukes.
In the Holy Bull, riding to Nafzger's instructions, Sellers took Vicar back and got snarled in first-turn traffic, brushing horses, hitting the fence and losing all chance. He finished fifth, beaten by 4�, and Sellers thought for sure he would be "yanked off the horse." What happened next, to Sellers, was a kind of miracle. Nafzger took the blame and greeted him smiling. "Don't worry," he told Sellers. "We tried something, and it didn't work. We'll fix it up next time."