Finish flies in the face of Derby history

May 06, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --For a split second, as the horses came out of the second turn and pointed for the finish line, it appeared no one was going to emerge from the pack and challenge front-running Hard Spun, the 10-1 shot who had led for most of the first mile.

But just when a surprising ending to Kentucky Derby 133 seemed at hand, Street Sense, the 5-1 betting favorite, accelerated along the rail, passed Hard Spun and pulled away. The race was over long before Street Sense reached the finish line, and in a weird way, the favorite's triumph was even more surprising.

For years, the Kentucky Derby has been famously hard on horses that made headlines when they were younger, as Street Sense did when he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for 2-year-olds last fall. No horse had ever won the Juvenile and come back to win the Derby six months later.

But one has now.

"What do ya'll think about that jinx now?" crowed Carl Nafzger, Street Sense's trainer.

The victory actually debunked a handful of such jinxes that have governed recent Derby thinking.

Street Sense was declared racing's 2-year-old champion of 2006 after winning the Juvenile, and it had been 28 years since the 2-year-old champ won the Derby. Street Sense also had raced only twice this year, and no horse since Gato del Sol in 1982 had won the Derby after racing so seldom before the first Saturday in May.

To pile on, Street Sense is also just the third betting favorite to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979, following Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Smarty Jones in 2004.

Jim Tafel, the publishing executive who owns Street Sense, said yesterday that Nafzger, 65, had predicted a Derby victory late last year - quite a statement given all the history working against the idea.

Asked to pinpoint the exact moment when he made that prediction, Nafzger thought for a minute and said: "Maybe we were drinking."

That would explain his bold declaration in the face of so many widely accepted jinxes.

In the days leading up to yesterday's race, however, it was clear Street Sense had a better shot in the Derby than any 2-year-old star in recent years.

Many of those 2-year-olds had fallen off at 3 because they failed to keep growing and developing. These are equine teenagers, susceptible to wildly varying growth spurts and stoppages. Arazi, the best 2-year-old of the past quarter-century, was a brilliant speedster when he won the 1991 Juvenile, but he failed to keep growing and was dwarfed by his rivals by Derby time. He ran eighth.

Street Sense continued to mature and develop, however, as was plainly evident during training hours at Churchill Downs last week. A muscular dark brown colt, he exuded power and confidence as he dashed across the track. Nafzger's assistant, Ian Wilkes, told USA Today: "He was able to win the Juvenile and progress a ton over the winter."

The horse's superb conditioning had the old-school Nafzger bubbling like a kid, which was probably why Street Sense went from being second choice on the morning line to the favorite yesterday. Nafzger, who trained the 1990 Derby winner, Unbridled, is a pro's pro, not given to bold pronouncements. The Derby's savvy fans recognized his unchecked confidence as a meaningful sign.

The only question mark surrounding Street Sense coming into yesterday's race was his dangerously light racing schedule - just two races since the Juvenile last November, including a defeat in the Blue Grass Stakes in April.

But the fact that Nafzger was in charge eased any concerns. The horse just didn't respond to a harder training regimen earlier this year, he said, so he backed off and took it easy. Simple. But it took a trainer with supreme self-confidence.

"I said all along that we're just going to let the horse take us where we want to go," Nafzger said yesterday.

Street Sense started slowly yesterday and was still running 17th with a half-mile to go, but when jockey Calvin Borel asked him to run, he unleashed a move that none of the 19 other horses in the race could come close to matching.

He surged past 14 horses in the next quarter-mile (now there's a move), found himself on Hard Spun's heels and zipped into the lead with Borel urging him. Although Hard Spun held on to finish second, Borel started celebrating in the stretch because he looked back and, as he said later, "There was no way [Hard Spun] was going to catch me."

Indeed, as in the Juvenile, which Street Sense won by 10 1/2 lengths on the same track, there was no doubt as he approached and crossed the finish line. The only difference was this time he had also beaten history along with a bunch of horses.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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