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At 9:30 last Saturday night, trainer Carl Nafzger left the blanket of Kentucky Derby roses hanging in the tack room of his barn at Churchill Downs and padded quietly up the shedrow in the dark to Stall 2, where a light burned and his big, raw-boned colt, Unbridled, stood, half asleep, his eyes nearly closed.
"Look at this colt," said Nafzger, smiling like a proud father. "Happy as he can be. He waited and waited for Craig to ask him to run today, and when Craig said, 'Let's run,' he gave it everything he had."
Just four hours earlier, jockey Craig Perret had swung the big colt outside of Summer Squall on the turn for home and had asked Unbridled for all he had as they charged through the homestretch. Unbridled responded with a blistering final quarter of :24[2/5], the second-fastest stretch run in Derby history, behind only Secretariat, on the way to a decisive, 3½-length victory in the 116th Kentucky Derby. Up in the clubhouse box seats, Nafzger, his voice rising with emotion, described what was happening on the racetrack to Unbridled's diminutive 92-year-old owner, Frances A. Genter, who could not see over the heads of the crowd: "He's on the lead, Mrs. Genter, he's on the lead!"
In the days leading up to it, the Derby was widely perceived as a two-horse race between Mister Frisky, who had won 16 straight races, most recently the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, and Summer Squall, who was coming to the race off smashing victories in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park and in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland three weeks before the Derby. As long ago as last August, when Unbridled broke his maiden at Arlington Park, winning by 10½ lengths, Nafzger began beating the drums, announcing to his stable help, "This is our ticket to the Kentucky Derby."
Unbridled did show promise as a baby, winning a stake at Calder Race Course and becoming a leading candidate for the Kentucky Derby off his four-length triumph under jockey Pat Day in the Florida Derby on March 17. But he never became the Derby horse. His time for the nine-furlong Florida Derby, a lackadaisical 1:52, made him appear to be the best of a bad bunch. Then Summer Squall whipped Unbridled by nearly four lengths in the Blue Grass, and he was placed among the second echelon of Derby contenders. Even Day abandoned Unbridled, choosing instead to ride Squall in Louisville.
Perret, who replaced Day, had ridden Unbridled in the Blue Grass and was on him in his major workouts before the Derby, including a fast three-quarter-mile drill in 1:13. The colt bloomed at Churchill Downs, looking radiant as he went to and from the racetrack in the morning, and Nafzger exuded confidence. On April 28, seven days before the Derby, he watched the colt gallop into the bit and announced, "He's exactly where I want him. He's not ready today, but that's not the idea. He will be in seven days."
Nafzger dismissed as irrelevant Unbridled's third-place finish in the Blue Grass. "He doesn't like a slick surface," the trainer said. "Churchill Downs is a different racing surface from Keeneland. If it rains here, it becomes packed and firm, but not slick. Unbridled is a genuine horse. And he has trained great."
Unbridled was one of the reasons this Derby was so difficult to call. He was one of at least seven horses who had a shot to win it. Dogwood Stable's Summer Squall had won seven of eight races, and his connections were sure they had the goods. "He's never run anything that was not a terribly impressive race," said Cot Campbell, the head of Dogwood.
Mister Frisky, meanwhile, had not raced since his 4½-length score in the Santa Anita Derby, and there was no consensus as to what to make of his chances. Of his 16 victories, the first 13 were at El Comandante in Puerto Rico against competition not easily read on the mainland. The question now was how he would perform against the best 3-year-olds in the land. Part of his appeal was his trainer, Hall of Famer Laz Barrera, who had won the Derby with Bold Forbes (1976) and Affirmed (1978). "He is coming to the race perfect," said Barrera. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
When Churchill Downs's handicapper Mike Battaglia announced the morning line two days before the Derby—with Squall favored at 7-5, Frisky at 8-5 and the third choice, a three-horse entry, a distant 8-1—Nafzger seemed genuinely amazed. "Only two horses in the race," he said. "Why don't we all go home? This is not a two-horse race. When this race is over, there's gonna be a lot of wrecks out there." Nafzger was convinced Unbridled would not be among them. As if the race itself were not beclouded enough, a cold rain fell on Friday and well into Saturday, leaving the track with no cushion. But it was springy and fast.