He could easily have ended up like so many old cowboys do, wasting away in some little prairie town, living in the past and drifting, aimless as a tumbleweed. "A lot of those old cowboys just can't do it when it comes time to make the adjustment," says trainer Carl Nafzger. But he was lucky. He had the love of a good woman, a gift for working with animals and, more than anything, a desire to make sure that he wouldn't end up like the cowboys in Willie Nelson's haunting song My Hews Have Always Been Cowboys: the ones "sadly in search of, and one step in back of, themselves and their slow-moving dreams."
Nafzger's salvation was thoroughbred racing, a sport in which he found what he liked most about the rodeo: the freedom of life on the road and the satisfaction of figuring out what makes an animal tick. So when he married the schoolmarm, just as in those old Western matinees, Nafzger didn't ride off into the sunset. He learned and worked and improved until, last year, he arrived at the very top of the racing game.
Looking at him now, it's difficult to imagine him riding a bull, a black cowboy hat on his head, his thin body lurching this way and that as he struggles to hang on for dear life. But that was what he was—and, deep down, still is. At 49, Nafzger is more polished, able to move easily through the elegance and sophistication of racing's upper crust. Only the twang, Texan all the way, gives him away. And maybe the hands. The big, thick hands of a man who knows what it's like to do manual labor and to make beasts, savage ones in some cases, do his bidding.
His old cowboy pals must have loved it last May 5, when he finally won the Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race in the world. There was Nafzger, all duded up and wired for sound by ABC, calling the race for Mrs. Frances Genter, the 92-year-old pillar of the racing establishment, who had come to Churchill Downs to watch Unbridled, her first Derby starter after 50 years in the business. What happened as the splendid bay swung out of the turn for home and began moving powerfully for the lead has already become a part of racing folklore.
"He's taking the lead," Nafzger yelled to Unbridled's owner as the TV audience looked on. "He's gonna win, Mrs. Genter, he's gonna win! He's gonna win! We won it! You won the Kentucky Derby! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you, Mrs. Genter!"
Was that sweet or what? And the next day, with a hint of tears in his eyes, there was the old cowboy saying, "If I never win another Derby, at least I won the right one, because of Mrs. Genter." He could never show that kind of emotion at the rodeo. It would just never do, that's all, because you have to be tough and hard and mean in that rough-and-ready sport. Wanda, Carl's wife and partner, had a lot to do with teaching him something of the softer, gentler side of life.
They met in 1963, at a Denver rodeo where Carl was riding, and he became so smitten with Wanda Judson, the dark-haired, soft-spoken special education teacher, that he began writing letters to her and calling her from all the places the rodeo took him. They were married five years later, and have been a team ever since. He trains the horses; she takes care of the books. But more than that, they have hung together, comforting each other in the bad times and rejoicing quietly together when fortune smiled.
Here are Carl and Wanda for you: The night Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby, they went to a small Italian restaurant in a Louisville shopping center, and, said Carl, "had some good food and a cold Heineken." And the next weekend, instead of blowing off steam in some city, they made a sentimental journey back to Arizona, back to where Carl once rode a lot of rodeo bulls and where, two decades ago, the two of them had begun campaigning horses at small tracks, those other bullrings of sport.
"Wanda and I have been real lucky," Nafzger says, thinking maybe of what might have been. "We don't have a special magic or anything. We just had a dream, and, after 22 years, we made it. But we're not going to change. I still drive the same ol' Buick and I didn't go out and buy Wanda a big diamond ring or anything. That's just not us."
One of Carl's favorite movies is The Last Picture Show, because it reminds him of his hometown of Olton, Texas (pop. 1,800). The closest town to Olton that anybody ever heard of is Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University and Buddy Holly. Carl liked Olton, and still does, but he also wanted to get out as soon as he could. He wanted to be somebody, to do something important, and that's hard in Olton.