His grandfather on his father's side came over from Switzerland in 1887, settled in Monroe, Wis., and then moved on to Texas, where he joined the other homesteaders looking for cheap land. When Carl's father, Paul, inherited part of the family spread of about 2,000 acres, he supported his family with various kinds of farming. One year it would be cows, another year it might be turkeys or corn or cotton. But what fascinated young Carl more than anything else were the bulls.
"I'd come home from school and feed the bulls," he said, "and I finally talked my dad into building me a bucking chute. He put me on my first bull, a big ol Hereford who threw me two or three times and then sort of ran over me too. But I loved it. From that day on, I didn't want to do anything but ride bulls. I don't know why. It became an obsession."
That obsession led him to the rodeo, which is the only place you can make money riding bulls. The deal is rather simple, really. You get on a snorting, stomping animal that weighs about 1,200 angry pounds, the chute opens and off you go. The bull tries to toss you into the next county and you try to hang on. If you stay on for eight seconds, you qualify. If you don't, you're on your butt and it's a case of better luck next time, pal. 'The thing about the rodeo," Nafzger says, "is that you're completely on your own. There's nobody to buy your bus ticket for you, nobody to pick you up, nobody to cry if you break your leg."
He became a professional bull rider in 1960, a year after he graduated from high school. "Dad signed the card, and I was down the road," Carl says. From 1960 through '68, Nafzger competed on the Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, traveling as much as 80,000 miles annually, riding a bull somewhere almost every night of the rodeo year, from the day after Christmas until early the next December. You name the stop, and Nafzger probably remembers a bull from there: Amarillo, Calgary, San Antonio, Cheyenne, Laramie. The road goes on forever when you're a rodeo cowboy.
He made $13,000 in his best year, 1963, and retired in 1968, the year he married Wanda. Then he unretired for a while, in 1969, because he and Wanda needed money for their fledgling racing operation. By the time he got off his last bull, in 1971, he had ridden more than 1,500 of the animals in about 700 different towns. He had made it to the National Finals Rodeo three times, his best finish coming in '63, when he stayed on six of his eight bulls to take third in the overall bull-riding standings.
"It takes eight seconds on the clock to ride a bull," Nafzger says, "but if you've got a bad one, it can be an eternity."
Once he caught a bad one in Wahoo, Neb., that slammed him against a telephone pole. Nafzger has a steel rod in his left leg to remind him of that ornery animal. He also had his nose broken five times, his teeth knocked out and numerous bones cracked. The bulls had names like Tornado and Wild Man, and Nafzger would study them until he learned their habits, their quirks. The most dangerous of them were the unpredictable ones. "I remember one out of Mesquite, Texas, that had a real rubber neck," Nafzger says. "If he ever popped you, he'd hurt you."
In the fall of 1966, Nafzger and three of his fellow cowboys were on their way to the Cow Palace in San Francisco when they decided to stop off and take a look at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Ky. Impressed by the track's stately shade trees and its emerald paddocks, Nafzger turned to his friends and said, "Boys, someday I'm going to run horses here." To which one of his friends replied, "Carl, this is the kind of place where they wouldn't let you in the grandstand."
A decade later, Carl and Wanda took some horses to Keeneland for the first time; they have been a fixture there ever since. "A lot of people in Kentucky think I've lived there all my life," says Carl.
When Carl and Wanda first met, he was a cocky 21-year-old kid who was in love with the romance of the rodeo. He thought he was pretty hot stuff, too, swaggering around in that black cowboy hat, looking a little like James Dean in Giant—or so some of the girls told him.