If Street Sense wins Saturday’s Preakness Stakes and goes on to snare the Belmont on June 9 to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, it won’t buoy the suppressed ego of Carl Nafzger.
The 65-year-old Texan will be the same fundamentalist he’s been since he began training horses in 1968, after riding on the rodeo circuit in the 1950s. He ranked third in the world in bull riding in 1963. But there’s no "bull" in Nafzger’s DNA. Having him serve a verbal curve ball would be pretty rare, like seeing the Queen without a hat, or having O.J. hired again for a Hertz commercial.
So when Nafzger speaks about Street Sense and the Kentucky Derby winner’s chances in the Preakness at Pimlico, with its reputed sharp turns and the shorter distance of a mile and 3/16, as opposed to the Derby’s mile and a quarter, and half the field he faced in the Derby, it’s not with a forked tongue.
"He’ll run his same race," Nafzger said by phone from Churchill Downs last week before Street Sense shipped to Pimlico. "It might be a little more speed-favoring, but we’ve still got a mile and 3/16 to go. Speed can hold up a lot better there, but my feeling is, if you make the Super Bowl with a passing team, you don’t try and turn it into a running team in two weeks.
"It’s the horse that wins the race, anyway. Calvin Borel’s got to read the pace; Calvin Borel’s got to squeeze the trigger at the right time."
Borel is the 40-year-old blue collar jockey who has ridden Street Sense in each of the colt’s eight races, including an authoritative 2 1/4-length triumph in the Derby. Nafzger, who won the Run for the Roses in 1990 with 10-1 shot Unbridled, is not inclined to over-analyze.
"The horse is doing good," Nafzger said. "He didn’t lose his color, he’s dappled, he’s eating good and he jogged the day after the Derby. I’m taking a horse to Baltimore that’s ready to run, but I’ll go back to my pre-Derby analogy: I don’t care what the tote board says. You’re 19-1 when they open the gates (with 20 horses in the Derby), and in the Preakness, if there are 10 starters, we’ll have a 9-1 chance, but I can’t worry about that aspect of it.
"Papa Joe" Taylor (of Taylor Made Farms in Nicholasville, Ky.) came to me one morning when I had Unbridled and he said, ”˜Don’t you worry about them other horses. Them other trainers will screw them up. Just don’t screw yours up.’ So I just worry about my horses when I train.
"I have friends in football, so I like to use football analogies. You stay with what got you there. You tweak a few little things and try to have your players 100 percent sound, but, hey, they’ve got to out and win the game," he said.
Should Street Sense win the Preakness, he would be in position to capture the elusive Triple Crown, which has been missed in the past 28 years by the likes of Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. Each horse won the first two legs, only to lose in the Belmont.
Nafzger had a ready explanation when asked why the Triple Crown has eluded horsemen for nearly three decades.
"I can answer that real quick," he said. "It’s simple. It’s a solid test, to start with, but in the last 20 years, it’s the airplane. Think about it. Years ago, you had to make van trips and it was a difficult route to get to each of the three races. But since horses began flying, they ship in a few days before and run. It’s not so much that the races are close together (three in five weeks), but more that it’s three different tracks and three different styles of running. A horse needs more speed at Pimlico and more staying power and stamina at Belmont, where it’s the same pace and a horse can’t weaken.
"There are many reasons why horses haven’t won it, but what really changed the Triple Crown is the airplane. Bobby Frankel taught me this years ago, when I quit the rodeo and started training: if you’ve got a good horse and conditions are right, you just put him on an airplane, it lands on a Wednesday, he gallops at the track Thursday or Friday and runs on Saturday and wins the race, and then goes back on a plane to California. Twenty years ago, that would have taken much more planning and scheduling. In other words, nowadays, when a horse gets good, he can just show up for the race," he stated.
But don’t expect Carl Nafzger to besmirch the Triple Crown trophy and wear it on his head, should Street Sense join racing’s previous 11 winners.
"It’s understandable to think about winning it, but I never let myself do that," he said. "I’ve got a horse to worry about, and I’ll leave you with this quote: the expectation is never as great as the realization. When you’ve trained as long as I have—I won the Alabama, I won the Coaching Club American Oaks, I won the Travers and the Kentucky Derby twice, and I’m not degrading anything, because it’s a great thrill. But as soon as you get beat on Saturday afternoon, the media heads for another barn. That’s the one thing I don’t like about the press: when they don’t show up Sunday morning."
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