Carl Nafzger: Listening to the Horse

Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger conditioned two memorable Kentucky Derby winners in 1990 victor Unbridled and 2007 hero Street Sense. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

Trainer Carl Nafzger was kind enough to allow a reporter to accompany him and Street Sense to the main track at Churchill Downs for a morning gallop a few days before the 2007 Kentucky Derby. He did not warn his visitor that what figured to be a short walk would take considerably more time than expected.

As the racing surface and the famous twin spires came into view, it turned out that Street Sense had a habit of stopping to take everything in. He just stood there as other horses continued to the track, not for a few seconds but for a few minutes. Nafzger, unfazed, indulged his curiosity. Finally, the colt was ready for his morning exercise – after his terms were meet.

If there is one snapshot that captures the reason for Nafzger’s Hall of Fame success, that might well be it. The native of Plainview, Texas, in reflecting on his approach to training, said, “I go on intuition, feel. I become one with the horse.”

Said Calvin Borel, who rode Street Sense for Nafzger: “He doesn’t try to make the horse do something he doesn’t want to do. He lets the horse tell him.”

Nafzger also credits outstanding owners. One of those was surely Frances Genter. Nafzger provided one of the most touching moments in racing history when he called the stretch run of the 1990 Kentucky Derby for the petite Genter, who was 92 and unable to see over the massive crowd in order to follow her horse, Unbridled.

Nafzger had urged her to attend, promising to be her eyes and ears. He was true to his word when Unbridled made an overpowering move. “He’s taking the lead! There he is! There he is! He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win! He’s a winner, Mrs. Genter! You won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter!”

In a rarity and a tribute to Nafzger’s training acumen, Unbridled went on to add victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to his earlier Derby triumph. Not surprisingly, the trainer credits a strapping colt he lovingly referred to as “The Gentle Giant.”

“When he got his big body going down the stretch, he could run,” Nafzger said. His expert handling of Unbridled led him to be honored with an Eclipse Award as the outstanding trainer in North America in 1990. He was part of another Eclipse Award when Banshee Breeze was saluted as the outstanding 3-year-old filly in 1998.

Nafzger’s ability to keep horses in form was readily apparent when Street Sense ended the so-called “Juvenile Jinx” by taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the autumn of 2006 and then the Derby the following spring. Just one other horse, Nyquist, has accomplished that feat since.

Street Sense wins the 2007 Kentucky Derby. (Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs Photo)

Nafzger defied conventional wisdom that a horse needed a minimum of three prep races to be fully prepared for the famed run for the roses. He never wavered in outlining a plan that had Street Sense run two preps, a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby and a just-missed second in the Blue Grass Stakes.

“A lot of people said ‘You can’t do it,’ but he needed only two preps,” the trainer said. “All he needed when he got to the Derby was to be fit and ready. He already had experience.”

Street Sense made six starts as a 2-year-old. When he spurted to the lead to defeat Hard Spun by 2 ¼ lengths in the Derby, he joined Sunny’s Halo (1983) as the only horses in the last 60 years to win the Derby in only their third starts of the year.

Nafzger was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2008. For Borel, much of the reason for the trainer’s success was evident in the pre-race instructions he would deliver. “Let Street Sense tell you what he wants to do, and you do it,” Nafzger would say.

Before morning gallops, that often meant allowing Street Sense to stand still.

Fun Facts

  • Was a professional bull rider before he launched his training career.

  • Literally wrote the book on training Thoroughbreds: “Traits of a Winner.”

  • Inducted into Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2008.

  • Two-time winner of Big Sport of Turfdom Award for efforts to promote racing.

  • Classic-winning trainer Ian Wilkes was a long-time Nafzger understudy.

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