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Still a Cowboy at Heart
William F. Reed
February 11, 1991
Though he has won horse racing's biggest prizes with Unbridled (right), Carl Nafzger remains a rodeo man deep down
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February 11, 1991

Still A Cowboy At Heart

Though he has won horse racing's biggest prizes with Unbridled (right), Carl Nafzger remains a rodeo man deep down

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"But he had good manners, too," says Wanda. "I think that's what I liked the most about him. Also, we both liked horses. They were my hobby, and I really enjoyed them, When we got married, I didn't mind living on the road because when you have pleasure horses, like I did, you're always going to horse shows."

Carl could have taken a job in the rodeo, been an arena manager or something like that, but Wanda persuaded him to give racing a try. She sensed, maybe before he did, that he had a knack for understanding animals. "A sixth sense," says John Nerud, the respected Florida horseman who was to give Carl his first big break. At first, though, Nafzger missed the cowboy life. Still does, sometimes, except for one thing.

"Your body takes a terrible beating when you're a bull rider," says Nafzger. "It's not anything big, like a broken leg, that gets you. It's the constant pounding, night after night. After I got out of it, it was about a year before I got up one morning and felt that something was different. I finally figured out that I wasn't sore all over anymore."

The Nafzgers started at the bottom of the horse racing business in 1968 and slowly worked their way up, traveling from New Mexico to California to Louisiana, until finally they arrived in Kentucky, the mecca of the sport. While Carl worked hard at learning to translate his gift from bulls to thoroughbreds—he even took a horseshoeing course at one point—Wanda helped make ends meet by teaching school.

It was a hard life, especially in the beginning, but Carl never tired of trying to figure out the thoroughbreds. "I'm a horse psychiatrist, not a horse trainer," he likes to say. And he never lost his optimism. After a disappointment, he still says to Wanda, "We're gonna start this day all over again." In the glove compartment of the cluttered 1990 Buick Park Avenue that serves the couple as a sort of rolling office, Carl keeps a motivational tape entitled, "Be a Confident Winner."

"You have to visualize what you want to be and then be it," Nafzger constantly tells his 30 employees. "You have to review your mistakes, rerun everything you do and learn from it. I wished they'd had the video camera when I was rodeoing. I'd have been a lot better bull rider."

The break that every trainer looks for came to Nafzger in 1979, when William Floyd, an old-time Kentucky breeder, gave him a yearling colt named Fairway Phantom to train. The colt looked so promising as a 2-year-old the next year, winning the Breeders' Futurity at Keene-land and the Arch Ward Stakes in Chicago, that Carl and Wanda thought they might have their first Kentucky Derby horse. But Fairway Phantom chipped a bone in his knee and never made it to the Derby. Nevertheless, Floyd was impressed with Nafzger and recommended him to Nerud, the esteemed trainer and head of Tartan Farm in Florida. Nerud took such a liking to the cowboy that he encouraged Mrs. Genter to give Nafzger a string of her well-bred horses to train.

"John Nerud was the first guy to put enough stock in my barn to give me a shot and, at the same time, keep the owners off my back so I could prove whether I could train or not," Nafzger says.

Even if a trainer has the gift, he can go only so far if he doesn't have the stock. Once Nafzger started getting horses with talent, his career went steadily forward. His Broken N Stable—so named because Carl was the first male Nafzger in three generations to break the tradition of staying around Olton—became a respected operation on the Florida-Kentucky-Illinois circuit in the 1980s. In 1986, he won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland with his 2-year-old colt Orono, beating Alysheba, who went on to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby. And he trained multiple stakes winners Smile and Star Choice for the Genter Stable.

Last year, the stable made more than $6 million, four times its previous best. Besides winning the Kentucky Derby, Unbridled came back on Oct. 27 to win the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park. And Nafzger had another nice 3-year-old, Home At Last, who won the $1 million Super Derby in Louisiana.

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