LOUISVILLE, Ky. - What appeared so uncertain in the buildup became perfectly clear as the Kentucky Derby field rounded the far turn Saturday at Churchill Downs. The colt that had accomplished the most, had looked the best all week, was ridden by a man who never takes the long way home and was trained by a man who long ago proved he knows how to get a horse ready for a peak performance on the day when everybody is watching, was passing 16 horses in 300 yards.
Even as Pennsylvania-bred Hard Spun was getting away from the field, the real race was coming behind him. Two-year-old champion Street Sense, looking like a car on the shoulder passing stalled traffic on the nearby Watterson Expressway, went from 18th to second in 19 seconds.
Hard Spun kept running, but Street Sense was just coming too fast. Street Sense was in front by the eighth pole and in a race of his own by the finish line, winning by a commanding 2 1/4 lengths. Hard Spun ran the other 18 off their feet, but was simply beaten by a better horse. Curlin, normally close to the pace, ran a heroic race to be third, 5 3/4 lengths back of Hard Spun.
All spring we had been waiting for a horse to separate from the pack. Well, it was Street Sense, just as it was Street Sense 6 months before when he dominated the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with the same kind of devastating move.
Only twice has Street Sense demonstrated that move. It just happened to be in the two biggest races of his life, which tells you just how good trainer Carl Nafzger, the former bull rider, is at his craft. While others try to get their horses ready for the big moment when all the money is down, Nafzger knows how.
He did it 17 years ago when Unbridled won the Derby and then came back 6 months later to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Now 65 and semiretired, Nafzger did it again.
"One time, I was a very negative person" Nafzger said. "I've learned that life don't get any better. I think the greatest thing I ever said was, 'If you don't believe in God, study my life, it's been a miracle.' "
Nafzger has turned over most of his stable to longtime assistant Ian Wilkes. He only trains for two of his longtime clients, Jim Tafel and Bentley Smith. Tafel, who grew up in Pittsburgh, graduated from Pitt and made his fortune in the publishing business in Chicago, owns Street Sense.
"Last year, Carl said, 'Jim, we're going to win the Kentucky Derby,' " said the 83-year-old Tafel.
"Maybe, we was drinking," Nafzger suggested.
Only a serious horseman can see the talent. Only a master horseman can tap into that talent and produce a horse so ready when $2.2 million is on the line.
Street Sense ran the mile and a quarter in 2:02.17, which equated to an excellent Beyer speed figure of 110. It was the last two quarters that were off the charts. The colt made up all that ground when he ran his fourth quarter-mile in approximately 23.5 seconds. Normally, a horse cannot sustain that, but Street Sense's final quarter-mile was 24.6 seconds. That's serious stuff.
Winning jockey Calvin Borel, 40, is a race-riding Forrest Gump. When he was asked what he thought of winning the race in front of Queen Elizabeth II, he looked confused until his fiancé whispered to him that's, "The Queen of England."
Borel has little formal education. All he does and all he ever wanted to do was win horse races. He's won more than 4,300 of them.
Following in the footsteps of all the great Louisiana riders who have won the Derby (Eddie Delahoussaye, Craig Perret, Kent Desormeaux), Borel knows horses like Bill Gates knows software. In understanding the animals he rides and how to ride them, he has a Ph.D. He has never been a big name because he's never ridden the big horses.
When video demonstrations of how to ride big races are given in the future, this is the tape that should be pulled. The man they affectionately call Calvin Bo-rail took a left turn out of the gate and placed Street Sense right on the rail. With a storm of dirt flying back into him and his horse, Borel just sat there, letting the world go by. On the backstretch, he sent Street Sense around one horse, then passed all those other horses on the turn while never leaving the rail.
When he was finished with them, he sent his mount outside Sedgefield at the top of the stretch and then went after Hard Spun. It was as fearless and flawless a ride as you will ever see.
"It's the shortest way home," Borel said simply.
With the win, Street Sense took care of three more "Derby jinxes" all at once by becoming the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby, the first 2-year-old champ since the legendary Spectacular Bid (1979) to win it and only the second horse in 60 years to win the Derby with just two prep races (Sunny's Halo, 1983 was the other).
This Derby was not about history. It was about now. All the keenest observers said Street Sense was training the best. And they were all right.
Street Sense ($11.80) became the third winning Derby favorite in 8 years. Now, it is on to the May 19 Preakness.
As good as Nafzger is at getting a horse ready for the big moment, even he would tell you it's not so easy to bring that horse back to that performance in 2 weeks. Case in point: Unbridled blew away Summer Squall in his Derby; in the Preakness, Summer Squall ran away from Unbridled.
So there is hope for Hard Spun, who proved to many (including me) that he was far more than hype. His best chance to win was to hit the front early. Jockey Mario Pino could not have planned it much better or ridden more perfectly. He came out of the gate glancing left and right, seeing if another jockey was going to rush to the front. When he saw no movement, he let his colt cruise to the top. The three horses chasing Hard Spun were so exhausted they finished 17th, 19th and 20th. On many Derby days, Hard Spun is the winner.
"Carl beats me all the time," said Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones.
Incredibly, a horse that began his career at Delaware Park has now finished third (Afleet Alex), first (Barbaro) and second in the last three Derbies.
Most of the clockers thought Hard Spun had gone too fast in his Monday workout. A contrary viewpoint was that the colt was just feeling great. Pino and Jones insisted that was it, but some thought it sounded like they were just saying that to say it. Turned out they knew exactly what they were saying, feeling and seeing.
"We just got beat by a better horse," Jones said. "Carl is awesome at pointing a horse towards a race . . . I felt pretty good around the turn. I could only see one horse moving."
But that horse was really moving. Acceleration on command wins the big races. Street Sense, racing at his home track, made as big a move as you will ever see. Can he do it again in Baltimore?
"I think [only two preps] would work to my advantage," Nafzger said. "I know horse racing. They'll dig up another five or six that we haven't seen yet."
A cool $118 million was bet on the Derby. The queen watched from the fourth-floor clubhouse balcony. The rest of the 156,635 tried to get a glimpse of her and, if they were lucky, a glimpse of a horse at some point during the day.
In addition to the horses chasing Hard Spun, the other big loser was trainer Todd Pletcher. The man who dominates the sport at every level is now 0-for-19 in the Derby, the most losses without a win. The best 3-year-old Pletcher ran on the weekend was the filly Rags to Riches, who dominated the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. For that win, she got a Beyer figure of 104. A half-sister to 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil by 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy, she could be a candidate for the Belmont.
The five Pletcher Derby horses won all those other states' Derbies, but finished sixth, eighth, ninth, 18th and 20th in the one in Kentucky. Nafzger has started three Derby horses in his career, and won twice.
Which proves you only need one horse to win the Kentucky Derby, as long as it's the right horse. Street Sense was definitely the right horse.