Horse of the Year on line in Breeders’ Cup Classic

October 16, 2007 5:19 AM
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Less than two weeks from the Breeders’ Cup Classic, it looks like anybody’s race on paper, but Carl Nafzger wouldn’t change places with anybody.

The 66-year-old Texan trains Kentucky Derby and Travers winner Street Sense, who assuredly will be one of the favorites to win the $5 million Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27. If he does, despite losing the Kentucky Cup Classic to Hard Spun in his last race, Horse of the Year honors would be his.

All he has to do is beat the likes of Lawyer Ron, Curlin, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday and Tiago, among others, in the mile and a quarter race.

Nafzger is quick to draw a line through his colt’s defeat in the Kentucky Cup by the speedy Hard Spun, who led all the way in the 1 1/8-mile race on Turfway’s Polytrack. Despite an all-out effort by Street Sense and his jockey, Calvin Borel, they couldn’t pass Hard Spun.

"It was a match race," Nafzger said, "and you know who wins match races?" The question was rhetorical, the answer simple: speed horses, Nafzger affirmed, and Hard Spun fit the category.

"I think the Classic will be very contentious," Nafzger said from Kentucky, where Street Sense worked four furlongs under Borel in :48.40 at Churchill Downs on Oct. 9. Nafzger said the colt would work once more at Churchill before leaving for Monmouth, where he would have his final drill before the Classic.

"It’s a race that goes pretty deep, but as I’ve said, if we win, we deserve to be Horse of the Year," Nafzger said. "Of course, he’s never raced at Monmouth, although I have, but he’s not the kind of horse that needs to carry his track with him."

Street Sense, a son of the Irish-bred Street Cry owned by James Tafel, has raced at Tampa Bay Downs, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Saratoga, Arlington and Keeneland, winning six times, with four seconds and two thirds from 12 starts. He has earned $4,128,200.

In addition to being an easy traveler, at least on traditional dirt surfaces, Street Sense isn’t fussy about directions or distances. He has won from six furlongs to a mile and a quarter, and he takes what Borel gives him. From early on, that’s been strictly the rider’s call.

"I haven’t given Calvin any instructions on strategy since the second time he rode him," Nafzger said. "He knows the horse and what he can do."

Street Sense was taken out of his game in the Kentucky Cup Classic, and both Nafzger and Borel know that. They expect a completely different scenario with a full field and serious pace contenders in the Breeders’ Cup.

"You’ve got to throw out the last race," Borel told the Blood-Horse. "I couldn’t ride him like I wanted and Carl knows that. He’s not a horse that’s going to lay close to the lead and stuff like that. We’ll have some pace next time . . . I think you’ll see a totally different race. I’ll be surprised if he gets beat."

Nafzger, being a trainer with caution ingrained in his DNA, takes a less-boastful stance.

"Whoever is Horse of the Year has to win the classic," he said. "It’s a hell of an honor, but by golly, you’d better earn it. When you earn it, you deserve it."

The homestretch

”¡ John Henry is gone but will not be forgotten. The old warrior died on Oct. 8 at the age of 32 at the Kentucky Horse Park, where he lived since 1985. Horse of the Year in 1981 and 1984 when conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, John Henry won 39 of 83 races (16 of them Grade I’s) and earned $6,591,860. His most memorable race came in the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981, when he and jockey Bill Shoemaker hung a nose defeat on The Bart and Eddie Delahoussaye, in a finish so tight the numbers weren’t put up until Shoe and Eddie D. reached the jocks’ room.

"It was so close," Delahoussaye recalled. "Shoe and me didn’t get together until the horses left the grass course and reached the main track, and he said, ”˜What do you think?,’ and I said, ”˜Bill, it’s so close, it’s hard to tell.’ When I got back to the jocks’ room, they finally put up the official sign, and Shoe said, ”˜Man, I was ready to holler at you to see if you wanted to split the (winner’s) percentage, and you got away from me.’ I said, ”˜Well, you got lucky. It would have cost you half of what you earned.’

The TV commentators on NBC had announced to the public over the air that The Bart had won the race, and they had to retract all of that, and it was a mess. There was a lot of controversy, and it was great because it was the first $1 million race. But John Henry was something else. He was a racehorse."

”¡ There have been Patrick Valenzuela sightings at Santa Anita recently. Expect news on his return soon. Nov. 26 marks one year since the oft-suspended jockey, now 45, has ridden.

”¡ Good news, bad news for Marion Jones: Bad: She had to surrender five gold medals won at the 2000 Olympics. Good: She can now zip right through airport security.

”¡ And I have two words on the alleged fixing of professional tennis matches: Who cares?