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Nafzger makes ‘Sense’ chasing Horse of Year title

Sep 4, 2007 3:11 AM

Carl Nafzger is a man of simple means, but you might expect that from a former rodeo bull rider who went to the national finals back in the 60s. His directness came through with profundity when asked by a television interviewer what it would take for Street Sense to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 18.

"Finish in front of the other six horses," came the succinct reply.

You gotta love a man like that. He knows that baloney is something to put on a sandwich and not offer to a massive TV audience. Turns out Street Sense did beat those other six horses, and established himself as the leading candidate for Horse of the Year. All he has to do now is win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27. Even if he gets beat in his next race, the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby would still have a stranglehold on the title if he wins the Classic. After all, in the same year, a horse couldn’t win more prestigious races than the Derby, the Travers and the Classic. That’s a Triple Crown unto itself.

But Nafzger, who was 66 on Aug. 29, is not sweating it for the horse.

As the down home Texas native puts it, there is no pressure on Street Sense to become Horse of the Year. The pressure’s all on his trainer.

In a way, Street Sense is a throwback. The 3-year-old son of Street Cry loves to win, but not by much. In that respect, he’s remindful of Buckpasser, Ogden Phipps’ champion of four decades ago. Street Sense seldom extends himself to win by spectacular margins, save for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year at his favorite track, Churchill Downs.

"He likes to just raise my blood pressure," Nafzger said, laughing. "But I can’t let his running style get in my way, because I have to make my case to get to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and win it. I don’t have to win my next race to be Horse of the Year, as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to, but if I happen to get beat a head or a nose, well, that’s the way it goes.

"But if I come back and win the Classic, we’d be in good shape. Whoever is Horse of the Year has to win the Classic. It’s a hell of an honor to be Horse of the Year, but by golly, you’d better earn it, too. When you earn it, you deserve it. I’ll put the pressure on myself. We’ve got to beat the horses that are in the game. That’s our plan and we hope it works out and we don’t get beat by some 50-1 shot that doesn’t even matter (shades of Volponi in 2002).

"We’re in the same spot Bernardini was last year. He had to come through and win the Classic to be Horse of the Year, but Invasor beat him and he ended up being Horse of the Year. I’m not trying to sound pessimistic, but I think I know what my challenge is and I think I’d better live up to it."

Nafzger, whose horsemanship was strongly influenced by Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud of Dr. Fager renown, was considering one of five races as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep for Street Sense: the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 22; the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs on the same date; the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park on Sept. 26; the Hawthorne Gold Cup on Sept. 29; and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 30.

"There are reasons to go to all of them," Nafzger said, "but I don’t know which one we’ll go to yet. Everything’s wide open, but what hurts the Super Derby is that it’s exclusively for 3-year-olds, and I’d like to hook older horses before I go against the real bears (in the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Each of the five races has a reason to run in it."

Whichever decision Nafzger makes, precedence dictates it will be the right one. He captured his first Derby with Unbridled in 1990 in a race for the ages thanks to Nafzger’s heartrending description of the winning stretch run to vision-impaired owner Mrs. Frances Genter. Unbridled won the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year. Should Street Sense equal Unbridled’s feat, count on Nafzger to shrug off aggrandizement, as John F. Kennedy did when asked how he became a war hero: "It was involuntary," he said. "They sank my boat."

The homestretch

”¡ Despite Patrick Valenzuela telling Daily Racing Form recently that he plans a comeback this fall from a knee injury, his agent says it’s been a while since he’s heard from Valenzuela, who turns 45 on Oct. 17. "I don’t know nothing about Patrick; you know as much as I do, Ed," said Jim Pegram, when asked about the status of Valenzuela, who hasn’t ridden since last Nov. 26 at Hollywood Park. "I haven’t talked to him or heard from him in a long time."

Valenzuela, who has battled substance abuse problems throughout a career that has seen him win 15 Southern California riding titles in 21 years, has been suspended and had his riding license revoked by stewards some 11 times. He suffered cracked ribs in the Hollywood incident and had arthroscopic knee surgery last December.

Meanwhile, Pegram is back in action with 21-year-old Justin Shepherd, a native of Piedmont, Oklahoma, who was the leading apprentice rider at Oaklawn Park in 2004 and is coming in from Remington Park in Oklahoma City. Shepherd’s mother, Sherri, is a trainer, while his father, David, also rode. Pegram said Justin will ride the final days at Del Mar before going on to Fairplex Park.

”¡ Shaggy Mane, second to River’s Prayer in the Princess Rooney Handicap at Calder on July 7, is scheduled to make her next start in the $400,000 Northwestern Pennsylvania Stakes at six furlongs on Sept. 15 at the inaugural meet of Presque Isle Downs near Erie, Pa. The new track can lure high caliber horses thanks to purse revenue generated from slot machines. "She didn’t like the sandy track at Calder," trainer Don Chatlos said of the 4-year-old California-bred daughter of Bertrando. "Our long-range goal is the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Monmouth. It’s a tough division, but the track should be hard and fast at Monmouth that time of year, and that’s how she likes it."

”¡ I see where Larry Craig resigned his senate seat. Now if he had just resigned his toilet seat.

”¡ And if this column seems a bit melancholy, forgive me. I just missed out on Tommy Lasorda bobble head night.