For all he has accomplished, Unbridled may not ever top what he did March 16.
"Awesome," said trainer Carl Nafzger, who still gets a thrill when the subject is discussed. "It was awesome."
Last year, Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Eclipse Award for top 3-year-old. That's impressive.
But when he returned to the races at Gulfstream Park in Florida in the Deputy Minister Handicap March 16, "he did the unexpected," said Nafzger, 49.
What Unbridled did was this: Racing seven furlongs against Housebuster and other top sprinters, he was so far behind with a half-mile remaining that he appeared hopelessly beaten. In the turn, he gained
some, but with a quarter-mile left, he was still about 12 lengths behind Housebuster.
Then it happened. "I could see that son of a buck pick up the bit and get going," said Nafzger, laughing. "I thought, 'He's not only going to win, but he's going to win by a lot.' "
Unbridled roared past his rivals as if they were tied to furlong poles. Taking monstrous strides, he won by three going-away lengths. "It was one of the most impressive races I've seen in a long time," said Neil Howard, trainer of Summer Squall.
And it is one of the reasons Unbridled is the horse to beat in today's $750,000 Pimlico Special.
When the Pimlico Special was revived three years ago, Alysheba was the focus of attention. Fans applauded and cheered as he was led from the saddling area to the track, and, although he finished fourth in that race, Alysheba will be remembered as the Big Horse of that Special. He was easily the most proven and revered of a distinguished group.
The aura is similar for Unbridled. Although he has been inconsistent in his 19-race career -- he has won but seven times -- rival trainers fear Unbridled more than any other horse. They know if he uncorks a top race, they are virtually helpless.
"They told me he ran the last three-eighths of the Florida race in 34 3/5," Nafzger said. "You just don't beat a horse when he does that."
Howard said, "Once he gets his momentum going, you aren't going to beat him too often."
But Unbridled has thrown in some clunkers. He was never a factor in his last race, the Oaklawn Handicap. A quagmire of a track was the most logical excuse, and Nafzger, citing the colt's demonstrated dislike for off tracks, said earlier this week that he would not run Unbridled in the Special if the Pimlico track was sloppy.
There was also the chance that the colt had "bounced" off his brilliant Gulfstream victory. Many experts think that when a horse returns from a layoff with a taxing effort, the horse's subsequent race will be a disappointment.
And there is the chance that such Special rivals as Festin, Farma Way and Jolie's Halo -- two of whom beat him at Oaklawn -- may have matured and caught up to Unbridled in terms of ability.
Nafzger sees today's race as well matched, one that "if they ran it five times, you might get three different winners." Trainers of the other horses have been equally
complimentary all week, calling the race a virtual toss-up.
But none of the other horses has the credentials of Unbridled. He has won more than $3.9 million and, as a Kentucky Derby winner, "he's a little different from the other horses," said Nafzger.
"Last year, I was dealing with some unknowns with Unbridled," he said. "Now I know what I've got. The thing I'm trying to do now is play to his strengths. That may be an even bigger challenge, getting him to use all that potential he has."
In his two races this year, Unbridled displayed that potential once, and it thrilled his trainer.
"I went crazy," Nafzger said. "Absolutely crazy. They told me they'd kick me out of the Turf Club if I ever did that again."
NOTES: The Pimlico Special, the fourth race in the American Championship Racing Series, was not run for 30 years after being run for the 22nd time in 1958. This is the fourth renewal since its revival. . . . In an 11th-hour switch, Mike Luzzi has been named to replace Aaron Gryder on Silver Survivor, a horse Nafzger thinks has been overlooked. "There's a horse that is probably the only one you can say is a cinch to get a check," said Nafzger. The first five finishers will share the $750,000 purse. . . . With just $10,991 bet in the win pool in advance wagering yesterday, Jolie's Halo was the 9-5 favorite, followed by Unbridled (5-2), Festin (5-2) and Summer Squall (3-1). . . . Nick Zito, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold, will be the guest speaker at Pimlico's handicapping seminar today. The session begins at 11:30 a.m. . . . Trainer Dale Capuano sent out the winners of three races at Pimlico yesterday: For True in the fourth, Perfect Escape in the sixth and Lednak in the seventh. . . . Eternal Orage, ridden by Jacinto Vasquez, led all the way in winning yesterday's $25,000 Pimlico feature.