In LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, Street Sense roared from next-to-last in a 20-horse field to win the Kentucky Derby, putting trainer Carl Nafzger back in the winner’s circle 17 years after his first visit.
“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it. This is the toughest race in the world to win,” Nafzger said.
Street Sense broke two Derby jinxes under jockey Calvin Borel, who was 0-for-4 in the race.
In beating Hard Spun by 21/2 lengths, Street Sense became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to return in the spring and win on the first Saturday in May, snapping an 0-for-23 skid. He did so on the same Churchill Downs track where he won the Juvenile by 10 lengths six months ago. He was also the first 2-year-old champion to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
The dark bay colt, sent off as the 9-2 favorite on his hometown track, ran 11/4 miles in 2:02.17 and paid $11.80, $6.40 and $4.60 as the highest-priced winning favorite in Derby history. Smarty Jones paid $10.20 to win in 2004.
Hard Spun returned $9.80 and $7, while Curlin was another 53/4 lengths back in third and paid $5.60 to show.
While it was Nafzger’s second win in three tries, trainer Todd Pletcher, who had a record-tying five horses, was skunked again. He is now 0-for-19 in the Derby.
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, were among the 156,635 racing fans on hand, the third-largest crowd in the Derby’s 133 years. They watched from the fourth-floor clubhouse balcony overlooking the finish line. With the sun finally emerging before post time, they had a picturesque view of the famous Twin Spires.
Asked what it was like to win in front of royalty, Borel said, “It meant everything in the world.”
The 65-year-old Nafzger, who is nearly retired, wasn’t as emotional as he was in 1990, when Unbridled won for 92-year-old Frances Genter. Because of her faltering eyesight, Nafzger called the race in her ear so she could follow her colt to the finish line.
Then he gave her a big kiss when Unbridled crossed the finish line.
This time, Nafzger’s words to 83-year-old owner James Tafel were few and to the point.
“Mr. Tafel, we’re clear, we’re clear. It’s up to him now,” Nafzger said.
Street Sense left from the same No. 7 post as Unbridled 17 years ago. The moment Street Sense crossed the finish line Nafzger wrapped his arm around Tafel, shook his hand and pumped his left fist.
By the time the two made their way to the crowded winner’s circle, the white-haired Tafel was beaming.
“This is the aspiration of anybody and everybody in the horse business. It’s just overwhelming,” said Tafel, retired from a technical publishing company and living in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Nafzger and Tafel were taking a second shot at the Derby together. In 1999, Vicar finished 18th for the duo.
Nafzger works for just two owners now, having turned the day-to-day grind of his Churchill Downs stable over to an assistant. Besides Tafel, his other client is Genter’s son-in-law.
“I create the bills, he pays them,” Nafzger joked, referring to Tafel. “Maybe now I can afford to retire.”
Street Sense, who has finished in the money in all eight of his career races.
“This horse has never run a bad race,” Nafzger said.
Curlin, the 5-1 second choice, finished third, losing for the first time in his four-race career.
Imawildandcrazyguy was another half-length back in fourth and Sedgefield was fifth. Circular Quay, coming off an eight-week layoff, was sixth for Pletcher’s best finish.
Tiago was seventh, followed by Any Given Saturday, Sam P. and Nobiz Like Shobiz. Dominican was 11th, then came Zanjero, Great Hunter, Liquidity and Bwana Bull. Storm in May, who is blind in his right eye, was 16th, trailed by Teuflesberg, Scat Daddy, Stormello and Cowtown Cat in last.
Garrett Gomez said he got knocked around a bit aboard Any Given Saturday.
“When Street Sense came by me, he knocked another horse into me,” he said. “But hey, that’s part of the Derby.”
Borel is the master of saving ground and he demonstrated that skill in the Derby as Street Sense dropped back at the start and headed for the rail. While Hard Spun shot to the lead, Street Sense tucked in 19th along the fence.
Borel still had a snug hold on the reins as Street Sense turned for home. A quarter of a mile from the finish, Borel finally moved Street Sense to the outside and they accelerated away from the pack. They quickly reeled in Hard Spun, catching him in the final eighth of a mile as Borel sneaked a peek over his right shoulder approaching the finish line.
Once they crossed it, Borel thrust his whip in the air in celebration.
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This is the most powerful minutes in sports and it isn’t football or baseball.
What a great horse that won this year and to be so young!
I love the Kentucky Derby and every year I miss going to it.