Nafzger's 'monster' primed to buck trend

Click to follow

No, Carl Nafzger is not nervous. Partly because, if you ask him why he gave up riding bulls for a living, he will sometimes remove his upper teeth and give a wordless, expressive grin. But also because he has the homespun sense to stand alongside his jockey, nod towards the stables, and declare: "The guy who's gotta be nervous in this situation is back there in his stall. And you could put a million dollars in there, and it wouldn't influence him at all. He doesn't run, then Calvin Borel can't ride and I can't train. If he does run, then he makes us look pretty good. It's when you don't have a good horse, that's when you get nervous."

At 66, Nafzger has a very good horse – again. The Texan, once one of the world's top rodeo riders, is the last man to have trained a Kentucky Derby winner robust enough to hold his form into the autumn and win the Breeders' Cup Classic. That was Unbridled, in 1990, and on Saturday he hopes to do the same with Street Sense, who first announced himself at this meeting last year, beating his rivals for the Juvenile with staggering ease. With only one behind him in the backstretch, he cut through the field like parchment and floated 10 lengths clear. In May, he returned to Louisville and became the first Juvenile winner to follow up in the Kentucky Derby, passing 13 rivals round the home turn.

Street Sense has been beaten twice since, but entirely pardonably, and also won two big races at Saratoga during the summer. He rolled effortlessly round the bends here in his final work on Tuesday, in the process distilling what makes the Classic so special this year.

Five Kentucky Derby runners – including the first three home – have all come out and beaten older horses in Grade One races since, and all still seem to be on their game. Then there is the flourishing Lawyer Ron, favoured by many to beat all the three-year-olds. In this vintage field George Washington, the hope of Europe, is locally dismissed as a 20-1 shot.

"I'd say it's the best Classic ever, when it comes to depth and quality," Nafzger said. "It's just loaded with class. It's a heck of a crop. This horse has grown up a lot since the Derby, he's more professional. And if you're gonna compete with older horses, that's what you gotta do. He keeps his legs under him good, like a sprinter or a running back: they keep those legs working, never over-extend. He doesn't reach a long way, he pushes himself a long way. And when he gets that big body rolling, he's a monster."

As he spoke, the mahog-any colt was being hosed down after his work. The ritual was one of humility and obedience: a mere animal, standing quietly as his limbs and flanks were sponged down. Steam rose off his quarters, and soap trickled down his limbs. But there was no meekness in his bearing, and the morning sun flashed across his back like a molten ingot.

Borel gave him some carrots. The jockey's ears, jutting out from a shaven head, are joined together by an enormous grin, giving him a rather elfin look. His career had meandered along for 25 years before he stumbled across Street Sense. "I found 'em before, but they never last," he said. "They come and go, come and go. It's hard. It's a tough road."

Borel wears a leather waistcoat, and hides a smouldering cigarette in the curl of his palm. Shaking his head, he marvels over the places Street Sense has taken him over the past year: to the White House, even, for a banquet where the other guests included the Queen of England. "The dangedest thing you ever seen," he said. "I got the cake. I'm just getting me some icing. He's doing so good, it's hard to fault. He knows. When I stood up on him out there, he just took off."

Nafzger's fidelity to this journeyman shows the substance in his old school values. Ironic, then, that Nafzger, of all people, should once have been an unwitting catalyst towards the sort of fatuous exhibitionism, passing for "reality", that poisons so much television nowadays. When Unbridled ran in the Derby, he was wired for a live interview, up in his box, just before the race. He then discarded the earpiece, and forgot all about the microphone – but the producers kept a tape running.

During the week that followed, the indelible scene was broadcast across every network: Nafzger, increasingly delirious, with his arm round the horse's 92-year-old owner, describing what was happening. "He's taking the lead!" he shouted. "He's gonna win, he's gonna win, he's gonna win. He's a winner! He's a winner, Mrs Genter! You've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs Genter! I love you." And he kissed the feeble old lady.

As he says himself, that could only happen once. These days, everyone is more knowing. Nafzger likes to keep things honest. That, you suspect, is what he likes about horses. "Leave the horse alone," he says. "Humans have a way of messing up everything."