Unbridled: Gentle Giant

Legends
Carl Nafzger with Unbridled. (BloodHorse/Ann Eberhardt)

Few horses have been able to blend the kind of success that Unbridled enjoyed both on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.

A strapping, 17-hand colt with a long, ground-gobbling stride, he was slow to develop at 2 after a promising 10 ½-length victory in his career debut. The son of Fappiano was then plagued by a sore hoof at 4, succinctly explaining why he won just eight of 24 career starts.

Yet in his 3-year-old season of 1990, when everything fell into place, he enjoyed a campaign highlighted by a pair of classic wins only a handful of champions have notched in the past few decades.

Aside from winning the Kentucky Derby, the stretch-running bay colt returned to peak form in the fall and rallied from 13th to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming just the second horse to win both Grade 1 mile and a quarter races in the same year. As a sign of the greatness wrapped into that accomplishment, Sunday Silence and Unbridled remained the only horses to hold that lofty distinction until last year, when it took no less of a champion than Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to join them and become the third member of an exclusive fraternity.   

“His inconsistency was very simple,” Unbridled’s trainer Carl Nafzger said. “He was a big horse and when he got to moving and running, he was like a locomotive. Once he stopped, it was hard to get him going again. Things had to go his way all the way. Yet when he was at his best, he was as good as anybody you’d want to see. He was just a great horse.”

As a sire, Unbridled was nothing short of spectacular. He stands as the most recent sire (other than American Pharoah's sire Pioneerof the Nile) to produce the winners of all three legs of the Triple Crown (Grindstone in the Kentucky Derby, Red Bullet in the Preakness and Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes). In just 10 crops before his death in 2001, he accounted for 49 stakes winners, 10 of them in Grade 1 events.

His list of champions and Grade 1 winners include Halfbridled, Banshee Breeze, Smuggler, Exogenous and Anees. His son, Unbridled’s Song, was a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victor and became a pre-eminent sire with 100 stakes winners and offspring such as Will Take Charge, Unrivaled Belle, Unbridled Elaine, Midshipman and Eight Belles.

American Pharoah, out of Empire Maker’s son Pioneerof the Nile, is a great-grandson of Unbridled.

“Unbridled truly had a lot of talent,” Nafzger said. “He was honest and gave you everything he had, which is why he was such a good stud.”

Yet for all of his Grade 1 victories and star-studded roster of progeny, Unbridled made an equally lasting contribution to his sport through a poignant moment in time that will always be associated with him.

It came at the 1990 Kentucky Derby and it illustrated, in front of millions of viewers on television, how much joy a majestic horse can bring to the people around him. He was the impetus that produced the unforgettable scene when Nafzger became the eyes of Unbridled’s frail 92-year-old owner, Frances A. Genter, and lovingly told her, “You won the Kentucky Derby … Mrs. Genter, I love you.”

“To this day, people still talk to me about it,” Nafzger said. “They’ll come up to me and say, ‘I remember you saying, ‘You’re a winner, Mrs. Genter.’’ It’s amazing how well they remember it. It was such a magical moment.”

UNBRIDLED (FAR LEFT) EN ROUTE TO HIS KENTUCKY DERBY WIN

BloodHorse/Ann Eberhardt

That famed Saturday afternoon in May at Churchill Downs was set in motion by events that culminated earlier in the year at the Florida Derby.

Unbridled was purchased on behalf of Genter as a weanling along with his in-foal dam, Gana Facil, at the Tartan Stable dispersal sale. Though he won just two of six starts at 2, Nafzger chalked that up to Unbridled being, “very green. He was learning every race and getting stronger.”

He won his final start at 2, the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder, then in March, he exploded onto the scene as a leading Kentucky Derby candidate by surging to a decisive four-length victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Genter was at the Hallandale, Florida, track for her colt’s breakthrough performance, but had trouble seeing the race and told Nafzger afterwards that she would watch the Kentucky Derby at home. Nafzger ultimately changed her mind by telling her that Unbridled was poised for a huge effort in the run for the roses, and that there would be a television screen in the owner’s boxes so she could watch at the race at Churchill Downs as easily as she could from her living room.

That convinced Genter to make travel plans, though Unbridled’s path to Churchill Downs included a stumble when he finished third behind the victorious Summer Squall and Land Rush in the Blue Grass Stakes over a muddy track at Keeneland.

“It was a wet track and a deep, speed favoring surface back then at Keeneland,” Nafzger said about the Blue Grass loss. “Summer Squall had the advantage on us.”

Undaunted Nafzger brought Unbridled to Churchill Downs, where was ultimately sent off at 10-1 odds in America’s most famous and popular horse race.

At the same time, the then 48-year-old trainer was approached by ABC Sports, which was broadcasting the race, to do something relatively unusual for that era. The network wanted Nafzger to wear a small microphone so that in the final minutes before the race, while seated in the crowd waiting for post time, he could answer a question from announcer Jim McKay.

“A lot of the other trainers didn’t want to wear the mic,” Nafzger said. “Neil Howard (Summer Squall) didn’t. Laz Barrera (Mr. Frisky) didn’t. So (ABC’s) Curt Gowdy Jr. came to me and asked me to wear it. We had some close mutual friends, so I did it. He said they just wanted me to answer a question before the race and they were trying something new. That was all it would be.”

So Nafzger fielded a question from McKay about the drying-out track, which was labeled good, and then took out his earpiece, put it in his pocket, and figured the mic would be turned off. Little did he know, the mic was on and the camera was still following him, just in case Unbridled did something special.

The final element in the cherished scene that would unfold during the race came when clouds gave way to bright sunshine as the horses took the track, creating so much glare the overhead television screen in the box seat area was unwatchable.

“The screen was blurry because of the sun, so after the interview I turned to Mrs. Genter and I told her I would tell her what was going on in the race,” Nafzger said. “I called the race to her.”

With Nafzger serving as her eyes, a moment more unforgettable than the race itself broke from the gate.

With binoculars in hand while standing next to Genter, Nafzger detailed Unbridled’s dramatic rally from 12th under rider Craig Perret.

“He’s up to third,” Nafzger shouted as the field reached the quarter pole. Bundled in a blue overcoat with a matching pillbox hat on a chilly, 48-degree day, Genter nervously hung on every word from her trainer.

Then as Unbridled challenged Summer Squall for the lead at the top of the stretch and started to edge way, Nafzger yelled, “He’s taken the lead.” An excited Genter’s knees bent slightly and she mouthed “oooh” before raising a clinched fist in front of her face and looking out at the track, almost in disbelief at what was taking place.

“He’s taken the lead,” Nafzger enthusiastically repeated a few times, “He’s on the lead, Mrs. Genter. He’s going to win.” Over and over again, Nafzger shouted into her ear, “He’s going to win. He’s going to win. He’s a winner. He’s a winner, Mrs. Genter,” as the elderly widow beamed and they both began an emotional celebration over their initial Kentucky Derby victory.

Finally, as Unbridled crossed the wire 3 ½ lengths ahead of Summer Squall, Nafzger hugged Genter, kissed her and said, “You won the Kentucky Derby ... oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you.”

NAFZGER CALLING THE STRETCH RUN

“Mrs. Genter was everything that you saw on television that day. She was everybody’s mother or grandmother. She was that kind of lady,” Nafzger said. “There was nothing pretentious about her. It was an honor to train for her. You cannot believe how beautiful of a person she was. I can’t say enough good things about her. When I said ‘I love you, Mrs. Genter,’ it was from the heart.  Before the race I told people that if I ever win the Kentucky Derby, I wanted it to be this one for Mrs. Genter. I knew what it meant to her after all the decades she had been in the sport.”

As Nafzger and Genter headed to the winner’s circle, ABC showed an isolated replay of Unbridled’s victorious charge and then aired Nafzger’s emotional call of the race to the colt’s owner.

It was great television, put into the proper perspective by announcer Al Michaels who commented after it, “You couldn’t get it to look that way in a movie if you did 50 takes.”

Indeed you couldn’t, because the moment was truly unscripted.

“You’ll never get that scene again. Everyone knows they are on camera now,” Nafzger said. “It was just raw emotion that day.”

Nafzger was so unaware that his words to Genter had been seen and heard by tens of millions of people that it wasn’t until a few days after the Derby that he finally saw the television images which swayed America to fall in love with the adorable 92-year-old owner.

“We went down to the Derby Museum for a party afterwards and people are telling me ‘That piece you did with Mrs. Genter was incredible.’ I watched a rerun of the race there and I didn’t see anything but the race, so I had no idea of what they were talking about. Finally some friends had my wife and I over to their house on the Wednesday after the Derby to have dinner, and they showed us a tape of the race. That was the first time I saw it. It was amazing.”

America’s infatuation with Unbridled and his owner and trainer hit a bump in the Preakness when the colt’s Triple Crown bid ended with a runner-up finish to Summer Squall as the 8-5 favorite in Baltimore.

“In the Preakness, he made two moves and he didn’t quite have it. He flattened out in the lane and Summer Squall beat him,” Nafzger said.

In the mile and a half Belmont Stakes, which seemed ideally suited for Unbridled, the 6-5 favorite was a well-beaten fourth, nearly 13 lengths behind European invader Go And Go.

Nafzger pointed a finger at himself for the Belmont flop.

“He had a bad trainer that race,” Nafzger said without hesitation. “I read too much of the press clippings about how the Triple Crown was really hard on horses and I backed off on him. Yet the good ones can handle it and I didn’t have him fit enough. I made the mistake. Don’t blame the horse.

“People said the loss was because he couldn’t run on Lasix in New York, but I told the New York writers, we’ll be back in the fall and we’ll win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Everything we did after the Belmont was about getting him ready to win the Breeders’ Cup.”

It was an unorthodox route, but Nafzger used an allowance victory and runner-up finishes in a pair of Grade 1 stakes, the Secretariat on turf and the Super Derby, to prepare for the world championships at Belmont Park. Unbridled responded with a brilliant performance when he overcame breaking from the outside post in a field of 14 to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a length under Pat Day at 6-1 odds.

“Pat could have done anything with him that day. He had a lot of horse,” Nafzger said. “It was such a great accomplishment to win both the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Voted the champion 3-year-old male of 1990, Unbridled opened his 4-year-old campaign with arguably his most impressive performance.

In the Deputy Minister at Gulfstream, a stone-cold closer such as Unbridled seemed to be at a severe disadvantage in a seven race-furlong that also attracted the champion sprinter Housebuster. The conditions appeared to be so far tilted in Housebuster’s favor that he was sent off as a 2-5 favorite, yet on this day Unbridled was at his very best. After spotting Housebuster 14 lengths in the early going, the Derby winner blew past the feared sprinter in the final furlong and won by three lengths in a time of 1:21 4.5.

“It was his most amazing race,” Nafzger said about his star’s 1991 debut. “His last quarter was unbelievable. It was maybe the greatest race he ever ran.”

Little went right for Unbridled after the Deputy Minister as he battled a sore hoof and lost five of his final six races, winning only an allowance race at Arlington Park.

The finale came when Unbridled tried to defend his crown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and finished third against a moderate pace. He was then retired to stud, first at Gainesway and then at Claiborne Farm in 1997, to begin his next success story.

“He was a great horse but he also had a great personality, just like American Pharoah,” said Nafzger, who entered racing’s Hall of Fame in 2008. “Everyone could ride him and pet him. He had more kids on his back than jockeys. He’d eat food out of people hands. We called him the ‘Gentle Giant.”’

Yes, he was a giant who gave the sport some priceless moments, both on the racetrack and in the owners’ section of the clubhouse.

“That scene with Mrs. Genter shows you what horse racing could be,” Nafzger said. “It’s about people who love the sport for what it’s all about, not for the headlines you get. That’s what everyone saw.”

And once anyone saw it, who could ever forget it?


Fun Facts About Unbridled

  • The foal Gana Facil carried when she and Unbridled were sold turned out to be his full-brother, Cahill Road, who won the 1991 Wood Memorial for Genter and trainer Scotty Schulhofer.
  • Unbridled was ridden by future Hall of Famer Mike Smith in his first four starts.
  • His victories in the Deputy Minister and Breeders’ Cup Classic marked the only time he captured back-to-back races.
  • When Unbridled ran second in the Secretariat and Super Derby, each time he lost to a horse who was also trained by Nafzger – Super Abound in the Secretariat and Home At Last in the Super Derby.
  • Unbridled earned $4,489,475 in his career.
  • Unbridled is the broodmare sire of Tap Your Heels, who is the dam of leading sire Tapit.
  • Nafzger, won the Kentucky Derby for a second time in 2007 with Street Sense. Like Unbridled, Street Sense finished second in the Preakness but he skipped the Belmont Stakes.
  • Genter also owned 1986 sprint champion Smile and My Dear Girl, the champion 2-year-old female of 1959 and dam of the top sire In Reality.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!