Carl Nafzger retains his 'street sense' about racing

Aug 26, 2008 7:02 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Carl Nafzger doesn’t owe racing anything. He has already given it his life. So when the trainer of two Kentucky Derby winners speaks, people listen.

Nafzger, who turns 67 this Friday, is best remembered in an indelible image for the ages, when ABC-TV captured him giving a running description of Unbridled’s victory in the 1990 Derby to 92-year-old owner Frances Genter, whose failing vision prevented her from seeing the landmark triumph.

Nafzger’s grass root priorities have never swayed. First and foremost have always been the horse and the game Nafzger loves. The native of Plainview, Texas, has been flying under the radar since he saddled Street Sense to win the Derby in 2007, but that doesn’t mean his candor has diminished on topical racing issues: namely, why established division leaders on dirt have moved to grass; and the controversy over steroids and synthetic surfaces.

Nafzger gives the connections of Horse of the Year Curlin and Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown a pass for shifting their charges to turf.

"I used grass races to get Unbridled ready for the Breeders’ Cup," said Nafzger, who saddled the son of Fappiano to a one-length victory at odds of 6-1 in the 1990 Classic at Belmont Park on Oct. 27 after capturing the Run for the Roses in May. "Before the Breeders’ Cup, I ran him in the Secretariat at a mile and a quarter on turf, and after that, I took him to the Super Derby on the dirt. Then I had six or seven weeks (off) and I ran him in the Breeders’ Cup."

Far be it for Nafzger to meddle into the training philosophy of his peers, however.

"I never trained another guy’s horse," said Nafzger, in his typical Texas twang. "You have to listen to your horse. I can’t even read a Racing Form. I’m the worst handicapper in the world. Sure, I can evaluate my own horse by reading the Form and see what I have to do to win. But reading about other trainers’ horses and which one can win, I am completely clueless."

He is more expansive on synthetic surfaces.

"We’re on learning curve, and that includes management, horses, trainers and jockeys," Nafzger said. "We put Pro-Ride in our Skylight Training Center in Kentucky. It’s been in for a year now, through a real wet, cold winter with torrential rainstorms, and it’s held up beautiful. That’s what they’re putting in at Santa Anita and I think they’re going to love it. Ian Wilkes (Nafzger’s former assistant who now is training on his own) and other trainers in Australia discussed it at length before we put it in. We weren’t convinced, but we really like it now.

"We were the first ones to put Pro-Ride in, and it cost us quite a bit of money, but we love it. Horses do well on it. We’ll find out more at Santa Anita, but so far, maintenance is a lot easier and a lot less expensive, and consistency is going to be a lot better. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t prove this, but they say the difference in Pro-Ride from other (synthetic) tracks is that it’s like shooting a bullet into a bale of cotton. It just stops with no bounce, so a horse doesn’t get the percussion kick back from Pro-Ride. I had a horse we had to work on all the time, but it was nothing major. We put him on Pro-Ride and he got over being sore behind and won a stakes. He really improved on it. But everybody’s going to have to get used to synthetics and make adjustments."

Nafzger began training in 1968 and was strongly influenced by Hall of Fame trainer Johnny Nerud, who conditioned legendary Dr. Fager. Essentially, Nafzger is a hay, oats and water man whose emphasis is on development of yearlings, which is why he has mixed feeling about the use of steroids.

"The (recent) ban on steroids is very good," Nafzger said. "I’ve used them on my horses and I think everybody has used them in some way or another. They can be good or they can be bad, but as far as racing on them, you don’t need them.

"Steroids can make a difference, but on my horses, it was detrimental, because it made them more aggressive. I think steroids help an outfit that trains its horses really hard, but our operation focuses on taking more time and developing horses, so I prefer to just train and let the horse take you where it’s going, because that’s what it will do anyway. One thing I didn’t like about steroids was, it made horses carry more bulk, and the more bulk they had, the harder they had to train to be fit to accomplish your goal. So I never liked steroids that much. If you understand your horse, it will take you where you’re going."

Nafzger recognizes that racing has seen better days, fiscally and from a public relations standpoint, but he’s optimistic.

"We’re going through some rough economic times, but if I think racing is in a position to get together and pull forward in one straight movement," he said. "We’ve got to. I was at Santa Anita years ago when the winter meet began, and it was a great event, but now racing is all diluted because it’s everywhere in California, so now, what is there to write about racing every day?

"If a horse doesn’t break down or a jockey doesn’t get killed, if news isn’t bad, newspapers have no interest in writing about racing, and I can see why, because of what we’ve done to our sport. There is too much confusion and misunderstanding about drugs and their effect. Racing has harmed itself in some respects and we’ve got a lot of fixin’ to do, but that might be good…I think we can have spectacular coverage again and make our people heroes."

The homestretch

Nafzger said Street Sense, after 30 days in quarantine, has shipped from Darley Stud’s Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where he stood for $75,000, to Australia, where he will serve as a stallion Down Under.

Nafzger could be at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup if a 2-year-old colt named Capt. Candyman Can hold the form he showed winning his debut by 7¼ lengths at 19-1 at Saratoga on Aug. 13. The son of Candy Ride is trained by former Nafzger assistant Ian Wilkes.

"He’s a really good 2-year-old," Nafzger said. "He was super, super impressive first out. If he goes on and matures, we might be there."