His hope of repeat is unbridled

Derby: Trainer Carl Nafzger, who touched hearts with a win for the frail `Miss Genter' in 1990, returns to Churchill Downs with Vicar.

April 29, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The decade began with Unbridled -- and one of the most poignant moments in televised sports.

As Unbridled wove his way down the long stretch in the 1990 Kentucky Derby, his trainer, Carl Nafzger, described the action to the colt's frail, 92-year-old owner, Frances Genter.

"He's taking the lead!" Nafzger said, bending down to yell into Genter's right ear.

He straightened back up and peered again through his binoculars.

"He's going to win! He's going to win!" Nafzger yelled. "He's a winner! He's a winner, Miss Genter! You won the Kentucky Derby, Miss Genter! I love you!"

Nafzger hugged the woman who had provided him some of his best horses. And "Miss Genter," as Nafzger reverently called her, covered her mouth with her left hand, her thin fingers crooked from arthritis. The stunned expression of this gentle woman touched the heart of every American who had ever dreamed what it must be like to win the Kentucky Derby.

Nine years later, Miss Genter is gone. She died in 1992. And Nafzger's fortunes sank for several years without her steady supply of top yearlings.

But for the 125th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Nafzger is back with his first Derby starter since Unbridled. On Saturday he will saddle Vicar, a nearly black colt whose consistency and grit make him a preferred pick in a wide-open race of 20 raging thoroughbreds.

Nafzger, 57, would like nothing better than to close out the decade, not to mention the millennium, with his second Kentucky Derby victory. But the former bull rider and philosophic trainer will not cry if he doesn't.

"The hard part is getting through the preliminary races," Nafzger said. "Once you're here, enjoy yourself, you're running in the greatest 3-year-old race in the world."

Nobody's having more fun than Nafzger. He's telling stories, trading wisecracks and even reading aloud from the book he wrote after Unbridled's victory: "Traits of a Winner, The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Racehorses."

He flipped to page 117 and read: "The trainer must regulate the training regimens to fit each horse's needs. Adjust. Adjust. Adjust."

Nafzger is fond of saying that horses not only talk, but also never lie. It's just that people have trouble understanding what horses say.

"What we try to do is turn them into some calculation that we evaluate and equate," Nafzger said. "And we do that as well as humans do everything else. We screw it up."

With Vicar, Nafzger has had to adjust very little, because the colt by Wild Again has boldly achieved every goal set forth by his trainer. Of Vicar's seven starts he has won four, including two Grade I stakes at Gulfstream Park: the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby.

"He's got everything down as far as being a racehorse is concerned as well as he could get it down," Nafzger said. "All we need now is for the lanes to open. Hey, there are going to be 20 horses, but there's going to be only one winner."

The only time Vicar finished worse than third was in his first race this year, the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He got bumped, trapped on the rail and suffered a breathing obstruction. Surgery corrected the breathing problem, and Vicar reeled off two straight wins before finishing third three weeks ago in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Nafzger was so happy you'd have thought Vicar had won by five. The trainer recalled that Unbridled, after winning the Florida Derby, had also finished third in the Blue Grass.

And he explained that after Vicar had drawn the No. 2 post at Keeneland, he had hoped merely for a safe trip. Like most horses, the colt prefers running freely outside, not being squeezed between a stalking horse and the rail.

He'll have plenty of room in the Derby, breaking from post 18.

Since the Blue Grass Vicar has trained brilliantly. Two days ago he drilled five furlongs in the slop in 59 4/5 seconds, the morning's fastest work at that distance.

Afterward, Vicar's jockey nearly fell off the horse with enthusiasm.

"I think I am on the best horse this year," Shane Sellers said. "I really believe that. He's got what champions are made of."

Sellers was equally effusive about Nafzger.

"The man is unbelievable," Sellers said. "He told me exactly how he was going to work this morning. Everything he has told me about what this colt was going to do, he has done. He has done a masterful job with him."

Nafzger also trains Banshee Breeze, last year's Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old filly. But after three decades developing horses, Nafzger said he still enjoys training at every level.

"If you can't appreciate a $5,000 claimer that gives you 105, 110 percent, you really shouldn't be in this business," he said. "If you're just waiting on the big horse, it's a boring game."

But even the big horse -- and winning the big race -- isn't likely to alter Nafzger's dedication.

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