Trainer Carl Nafzger is back at Churchill Downs with what appears to be a very good chance to win the Kentucky Derby. Again. (He has a good chance, at least, to the extent that any trainer has a ''good'' chance to win the most challenging race in the world). Street Sense, who won last November's Breeders Cup Juvenile race for Nafzger and longtime client James Tafel, is training spectacularly for the Derby and will probably be made the favorite on Saturday afternoon. (Even though he was not expected to be installed as the morning line favorite by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia.)
The presence of the homespun Nafzger, a 65-year-old one-time professional bull rider, takes racing fans back 17 years to one of the most memorable moments in the modern history of the Derby. Unbridled won the race that afternoon, galloping home to a three-and-a-half-length victory under Craig Perret. (To be correct, this is not Nafzger's first trip back to the Derby since Unbridled; he also saddled Vicar in 1999, and Vicar, a misplaced sprinter, finished 18th in a 19-horse field.)
Unbridled was a terrific racehorse. He won not only the Kentucky Derby, but also the Breeders' Cup Classic as a 3-year-old, putting together a sensational campaign that has led to a solid career at stud.
But that is not what fans will remember from 1990. What they will remember is a television replay, showing Nafzger, clad in a beige trench coat, calling the stretch run for Unbridled's 92-year-old owner, Frances Genter, as Genter held her tiny hands to her mouth in amazement. It was as touching a moment as you will ever see in racing.
This is the story behind that moment, which not only gave Nafzger, Genter and Unbridled a lasting place in Derby -- and sports -- history, but also ushered into America's living rooms the eavesdropping we now take for granted. For better or for worse.
Curt Gowdy Jr., now the 53-year-old vice president and executive producer of SportsNet New York, was then the producer of ABC Sports' telecasts of the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown horse races. Gowdy was among the innovative television minds who was at the time seeking ways to bring the viewer closer to the action in all sports.
Before Gowdy went to Kentucky for the Derby, his father-in-law, John Morris, who owned Polo Ranch in Cheyenne, Wyo., told Gowdy, "When you get down there, make sure you say hi to Carl Nafzger for me.''
Gowdy asked Morris how he knew Nafzger, and Morris explained that as Nafzger had transitioned out of his rodeo riding career in his 30s, he had worked for Morris at Polo Ranch and, not surprisingly, had shown soft and capable hands with horses, a vision of his future. Gowdy did more research. "I saw that Carl had a big horse with a 92-year-old owner,'' Gowdy recalled this week. "So when I got to Louisville I asked Carl if we could put a wireless microphone on him. He seemed like he would be perfect for it. He said, 'Why not?'''
It should be noted that while mic'ing up athletes and coaches is now an almost expected part of the viewing experience, it was not so in 1990. "It was in its infancy,'' says Gowdy. "NFL Films had been doing it for a long time, but as far as live television, it had not been done very often. That might have been our first Derby, or maybe the second, where we did it.''
Nafzger took his seat in a Churchill Downs box next to Genter. Minutes before the race, venerable ABC host Jim McKay asked a couple of questions into Nafzger's ear and Nafzger answered them. That was the end of that, or so Nafzger thought. "I took the earpiece out and let it fall down to my side,'' Nafzger said. "I thought I was finished and I never thought about it again.''
Gowdy and ABC, however, kept Nafzger's microphone live. Unbridled, as was his style, rallied from 12th place early in the race and won going away. Gowdy kept his eye on the countless race cameras, but as he told me this week, "You can't watch 37 cameras and 21 tape machines all at once.''
When the race was finished and Gowdy's team began searching for good replays, Gowdy called the production truck and asked associate director Toni Slotkin, "How is the audio on Carl Nafzger?''
Slotkin fairly shouted back at Gowdy, "It's fantastic, you've got to play all of it.''
Gowdy played it back and could scarcely believe what he saw, Nafzger with his left arm around Genter, leaning into her right ear shouting: "He's taking the lead. He's gonna win. He's gonna win. He's gonna win. He's a winner! He's a winner! He's a winner, Mrs. Genter! You've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter! I love you." And then Nafzger kissed the frail little woman who would be gone two years later.
The replay was shown endlessly across America for days following the race, and until Unbridled was beaten in the Preakness. "It was movie-esque,'' says Gowdy. "It had everything. It was poignant, it was exciting, and it was completely genuine, because Carl totally forgot that he was wired. It was more than you could ever have asked for from miking somebody. Such a wonderful moment.''
The part about Nafzger forgetting is true. "All they told me was that Jim McKay was going to talk to me before the race,'' said Nafzger on Wednesday outside his barn at Churchill Downs. He feigns anger that ABC turned him into a star, because, of course, he revels in it, too. He did love Genter (although the true love of his life is his wife, Wanda).
Two weeks later in Baltimore, Gowdy approached Nafzger again and asked him to wear a wireless microphone for the Preakness. Nafzger politely declined.
Gowdy asked why.
"Because nothing will ever compare to that moment in Kentucky,'' said Nafzger, and these were prescient words.
Seventeen years later, sports audiences hear words they have never heard before. The are in the huddle, on the bench and in the locker room. People will be mic'ed up on Saturday for the Derby. Nafzger says he probably will not, but if he is, it won't be the same. Reality ceases to be reality as soon as a camera is present or a microphone is turned live.
"Everybody knows they're wired now,'' says Nafzger. "Nobody acts the same when they know it. That was a one-time deal.''