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On a warm winter morning at a South Florida thoroughbred training center, Carl Nafzger talked with a visitor while a young colt watched from his stall not 10 feet away. The nation's 2-year-old champion in 2006, Street Sense had not run a race in the new year, and here it was the last day of February. The Kentucky Derby loomed in the distance. "He's a phenomenal horse," said Nafzger, a 65-year-old Texan with a weed-whacker drawl and one Derby victory already on his r�sum�. "But wherever we're going, it's up to him to take us there. We'll just go along."
Here, then, is a Derby story built on faith. Together three men would follow the horse: the 83-year-old owner, James Tafel, whose instinctive matching of stallion and mare (a mating that experts told him would never produce greatness) begat Street Sense; the trainer, Nafzger, who refused to take the conventional path to Louisville; and the underappreciated jockey, Calvin Borel, who waited nearly all of his 40 years for the chance to sit astride an animal like this one.
They believed in the horse, and they believed in each other, and at 6:18 last Saturday evening, Borel carried Tafel's royal-blue-and-gold racing silks beneath the wire at Churchill Downs, 2 1/4 lengths clear of Hard Spun and eight long lengths ahead of morning-line favorite Curlin, who finished third in his fourth career start. "Greatest moment of your life," Borel would call it after a daring and professional ride.
The third-largest crowd (156,635) in the 133-year history of the Derby saw Street Sense become the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion to follow with a victory in the Run for the Roses. Attention turns to the May 19 Preakness and perhaps beyond, to the June 9 Belmont Stakes, as Street Sense, a strapping and dominant dark bay, is next in line to try to end a Triple Crown drought that has reached 28 years, the longest ever.
"Now, I suppose, everyone is going to want to know if he can [win] somewhere else, or if he can run back and do it in two weeks," said Nafzger after the race, as he sipped Kentucky bourbon over ice from a plastic cup at the postrace party at the Kentucky Derby Museum. "I'll just say this: What a horse."
Their journey began 23 years ago with a meeting at Arlington Park, outside Chicago. Tafel had just retired as a publishing executive and, as he prepared to plunge into racing, was looking for someone to train his horses. Nafzger was pure cowboy. He had been a professional bull rider in his 20s and then broken horses at a ranch in Cheyenne, Wyo., where his wife, Wanda (to whom he has been married for 39 years), was teaching special education. He began training thoroughbreds seriously in 1971 but didn't get his big break until John Nerud, a New York trainer, and Frances Genter, an owner from the Midwest, sent him horses at Arkansas's Oaklawn Park in 1982.
Tafel became a reliable and passionate owner and Nafzger a respected trainer. In 1990 Nafzger saddled Unbridled for his first Derby victory, a TV broadcast best remembered for his touching commentary to the 92-year-old Genter. He also had success with Tafel's horses, including Vicar, who won two Grade 1 preps but finished 18th in the 1999 Derby, and Unshaded, who ran third in the 2000 Belmont but--more memorably for Tafel--was crushed two years later by Street Cry in the Stephen Foster Handicap.
"I decided I was going to breed to that horse that dusted us off," Tafel recalls. That's what he did in 2003, sending his mare, Bedazzle, to Street Cry, a rookie stallion. "People told me, 'Not Street Cry,'" says Tafel. "But I remembered him, so I [went ahead]."
Street Sense was foaled on Feb. 23, 2004, at Chesapeake Farm in Kentucky. "The day he was born, I told Jim [Tafel] that this was the best-looking foal I'd seen in 10 years," says Chesapeake president Drew Nardiello. "He stayed for 20 months, and every day he became more mature and precocious."
He was broken at Ocala Stud in Florida and made his debut with Borel aboard last July. He would run five times as a 2-year-old, culminating with a 10-length victory in the Juvenile at Churchill Downs--a race in which Borel boldly took the rail entering the stretch, foreshadowing his Derby win. Afterward Nafzger recoiled in mock terror after a reporter asked for his cellphone number. "Oh, no, it's starting already," he said, before yielding the information.