I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby 27 times—16 as a member of the press as part of a team of writers and photographers who covered it for the Thoroughbred Record, and the others in every capacity from a drunk in the infield to the ultra-exclusive box reserved for heads of state and some of the biggest bigwigs invited to the race.
(Disclaimer: Lest you get the misconception that I’m trying
to make you think that I’m somebody, although I was at the time
Executive Vice-president of Spendthrift Farm and President of Latonia
Race Course, I was there as the guest of a bigwig, not one, myself.)
It will come as no surprise I have not seen many Derbies which didn’t provide a few good lessons for any horse trainer who aspires to have a starter in the race—and who doesn’t ?—but this year’s running contained an exceptional number of good lessons, not just for trainers, but for breeders, owners, riders, etc.
For starters, Street Sense was ridden by Calvin Borel, 40, who has been a journeyman on the Kentucky circuit for 25 years and has won 4,000 races, but is not one of the riders one would expect to be aboard a Derby favorite. He had never won a Grade 1 race until last summer, and, Street Sense won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile so impressively, last year, trainer Carl Nafzger began receiving calls from agents representing the crème de la crème of the nation’s jockeys, all of them hoping to get the mount on his star charge, but he stuck with Borel.
I’ve known Carl Nafzger for more than 20 years and that is just the kind of decision you would expect from him, a demonstration of the class and loyalty that have not only made him a Hall of Fame trainer, but one of the most respected people in the game. No doubt, he swallowed his heart three or four times when Street Sense turned down the backstretch 19th of 20 runners, but Borel (who is called ‘Bo-rail’, by Kentucky fans for his closing rides along the inside) brought his horse flying along his usual route with such a move that he had the luxury of beginning to celebrate a little prematurely, 100 yards or so before the finish line.
Never, in all my years of going to the Derby—or any other race, for that matter—have I seen the racetrack staff, the jockeys and the horsemen happier for a winning rider than they were for Borel. Standing straight up in the irons, tears running down his cheeks, pointing to the sky in appreciation in thanks for a clear ride, Borel was assailed with hugs and high fives from the outriders, from the other riders, from assistant starters, from other track employees and from other horsemen.
Lesson Two—make a plan and stick with it. The press will second guess you, drive you nuts. It looked to me like they were sort of getting to Nafzger about the time of the draw for post position. The second-guessing had been brutal—no winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile ever had won the Derby; the last time the champion two-year-old had won the Derby was 28 years ago. The last time the Derby winner had only two prep races as a three-year-old was 23 years ago, and that’s not enough, they said. Many of them thought Nafzger should have stabled at Keeneland, where he could train over the Polytrack, rather than at Churchill where the track can be tricky at best. Well, Carl Nafzger stuck to his plan, and now he joins only nine other trainers who have won the Derby twice.
The lesson from owner-breeder Jim Tafel is that one can still be successful at breeding a horse for the track as opposed to the sales arena, even in this day and age when the concept of “breeding to race” is as foreign as Queen Elizabeth II, who was the honored guest this year in the bigwig box.
As my friend Jim Squires, breeder of Monarchos, wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times a couple of days before the Derby, citing Seattle Dancer (a $13.1-million sale yearling) and The Green Monkey (a $16-million sale 2-Y-O) as the ideals of most breeders, today, he wrote “. . .it is the industry preoccupation with such horses and the lure of such extravagant prices that has kept breeders from producing in substantial numbers horses physically capable of enduring the Triple Crown grind. And today’s trainers are far more adept at conditioning horses for distances of a mile or less, at which most North American races today are run. . .
“A handful of throwback breeders continue to produce horses genetically capable of contesting the Triple Crown. . .[Congratulations Mr. Tafel]
“But everyone agrees that even the right horse in the hands of the right trainer that wins the tough Kentucky Derby has little chance of winning the next two against a changing array of fresh contenders. What was always difficult is now proving impossible.”