BALTIMORE - Jim Tafel felt he might have some chance in the 2002 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. After all, his horse, Unshaded, had won the Travers Stakes 2 years before, following a third in the Belmont.
Unshaded got crushed in the Foster, finishing fifth to a monster named Street Cry. Earlier that year, Street Cry had won the Dubai World Cup. Tafel lost that race, but that loss is why he won the 2007 Kentucky Derby.
When it came time to breed his mare Bedazzle for the first time, he talked to the experts. And went with his heart. He would breed her to an untested sire, Street Cry.
"A few of my friends weren't too enthusiastic about the breeding," Tafel said. "So I guess that's a bunch of nonsense, which has produced Street Sense."
The same Street Sense who was dazzling when he won the Derby and will be favored to win the Preakness Saturday at Pimlico.
Bedazzle earned nearly $200,000 the hard way, without winning a stakes race. Like Street Cry, who earned more than $5 million, she was retired at the end of the 2002 season. Their foal was born in 2004. That foal is now the only horse with a chance at the Triple Crown in 2007.
Tafel, a Pittsburgh native, saw his first Derby on television in the mid-1950s at the home of 1947 U.S. Open winner Lew Worsham, then the pro at Oakmont, site of this year's U.S. Open. Worsham beat Sam Snead in a playoff to win his Open at the St. Louis Country Club.
According to Tafel, Worsham had a little patch of mint just outside the door. So on Derby Day they did what came naturally.
"We had a mint julep together," Tafel said.
Tafel "was kind of dragged into the thorougbred business by a dear friend in Illinois and I just love it."
That friend, Leslie "Tiny" Welsh, the president of Studebaker-Worthington (a huge conglomerate), was a major player in the racing game. He sold the mare Royal Honoree at Keeneland in 1982 for $3.8 million.
Two years later, Welsh, playing golf at Pine Valley with Tafel, died of a heart attack. His friend Tafel, now 83, stayed with the horse business. A year after he retired from the publishing business in 1983, Tafel hired Carl Nafzger as his trainer after an interview under the pre-fire Arlington Park grandstand.
Nafzger may not have approved of breeding Street Cry to Bedazzle, but he knew just what to do with Street Sense. He told Tafel last year they were going to win the Derby. And he made it happen.
Tafel and Nafzger, 65, are a comedy team, so used to one another they can finish each other's lines.
"I know what Carl's job is and he knows what my job is and we respect our respective positions," Tafel said after the Derby.
"Tafel says we both know our place," Nafzer said. "I create the bills and he pays them."
Tafel said he didn't expect the day rate to go up after the Derby.
Nafzger won his second Derby in just three tries, 17 years after Unbridled, the sire of Unshaded, won it. His only Derby loss was in 2000 when Tafel's Vicar finished 18th.
Five months after that Derby loss, Bedazzle won the first race of her career. She was ridden that day at Keeneland by Calvin Borel, the 40-year-old jockey who was so ready for his chance of a lifetime on Street Sense and was rewarded 2 nights later with a State Dinner at the White House in honor of Queen Elizabeth II.
In horse racing, what goes around comes around. At least, that is the theory. And sometimes it even plays out that way.
John Nerud, the man who trained the legendary Dr. Fager and was Nafzger's mentor, once told Tafel: "One of the things I respect about you is that you're not jumping around from trainer to trainer looking for some magic formula."
Tafel stayed with Nafzger.
"We've had some lean times, but we've hung in there," Tafel said.
Long enough to win the Derby.
"Any stable is going to go through lean times," Nafzger said. "That's what really tests you, whether you're really putting your program together right or not."
Now, the program has a horse that has never run a bad race and, twice (also in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile), has run an incredible race.
"He's very push button," Borel said. "He'll put you in a spot where you want to be at any time and then relax. I really don't know how good he is."
Which is why they are running the Preakness.
In 1994, Nafzger wrote a book, "The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Racehorses."
It was 4 years after Unbridled won the Derby with a big move from the back, just like Street Sense. On the day, the trainer had his horse just right. Now Nafzger said he might have to update the book with some new chapters.
After the Derby, Nafzger said he had not thought beyond that race.
"The horse takes us where we're going," he said. "Man, has he taken us on a trip."
The trip continues in Baltimore where Unbridled could not handle Summer Squall, the horse he dominated in the 1990 Derby. Hardly anything stays the same for long in horse racing. The entire sport is a moving target.
One thing that does not change is the Kentucky Derby. You win it; you win it forever. *