The run for the Run for the Roses finally started to make sense last Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Florida. On St. Patrick's Day the perfectly named Patrick Day rewarded hunch bettors by guiding Unbridled to a four-length victory over Slavic in the $500,000 Florida Derby. That's Unbridled as in the kind of optimism felt by the colt's trainer, Carl Nafzger. "This horse believes he can do anything," said Nafzger, a former rodeo rider. "Maybe he believes he can win the Kentucky Derby."
Unbridled's victory in this first major prep race of the year helped focus a Kentucky Derby picture that was made fuzzy on March 3 when the three favorites—Slavic, Rhythm and Yonder—were all badly embarrassed by Shot Gun Scott, a 25-1 shot, in Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes. Unbridled had to overcome heavy traffic and bull his way between horses before finishing a strong third in that race. He had to withstand a little contact in the Florida Derby as well, when he brushed against Slavic at the head of the stretch. His lack of fear will come in handy in the May 5 Kentucky Derby, which may attract the maximum 20 horses.
"Look at him," Nafzger said as Unbridled posed in the winner's circle. "He loves it. He likes and trusts people, too. And he especially likes Pat." Though the time for the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race was 1:52, the slowest Florida Derby since Nashua won it in 1955, that didn't bother Nafzger. "Time's only important in prison," he said.
Unbridled is owned by the Frances A. Genter Stable, and the 92-year-old Mrs. Genter came to Gulfstream to see her colt win. Well, actually, she didn't see him win. "A man stood up and blocked my view," she said. "My daughter had to tell me he'd won." Mrs. Genter has been in racing for 53 years, but has never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. She has owned some fine 3-year-olds, though, most notably In Reality, who won the '67 Florida Derby, and Dr. Carter, an excellent prospect who became ill before the '84 Kentucky Derby.
March 26, 1990
After last Saturday's race Nafzger briefed Mrs. Genter in a scene that might have been entitled Training for Miss Daisy. "When I mentioned the Kentucky Derby," said Nafzger, "she said she might stay home and watch it on TV so she could see it better. I told her we'd get her a private box with a television in it."
Nafzger has never had a Derby horse before either, but now he may have two. He also saddled Top Snob, the fourth-place finisher in the Florida Derby and a colt quite different in personality from Unbridled. "He's so vain," says Nafzger. "He's just like his name. He'll lose a race and come back to the barn as if to say 'I could've won if I'd wanted to.' "
Having two colts good enough to race in the 1990 Kentucky Derby is a long way from the rodeo circuit Nafzger traveled in the 1960s. His specialty was bull riding, and his best performance was a third in the 1963 national rodeo finals. Nafzger jumped into the thoroughbred game feetfirst, becoming a farrier while he learned how to train. "If you understand the feet of a horse," he says, "you understand the horse." Now he has 40 horses, who winter at Gulfstream and summer at Arlington Park near Chicago.
Day also dabbled in rodeo before he became one of the winningest jockeys of all time. "I bit the dust a lot more times than I stayed on," he says. For the Derby, Day will have two horses from which to choose. He rode Summer Squall to a second-place finish in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream three hours before the Florida Derby. Although Housebuster won the race, Squall was the big story. Unbeaten in five starts as a 2-year-old, he started his 3-year-old season more highly regarded than Unbridled. But he bled after a workout several weeks ago, and there was some doubt whether he would be fit for the Triple Crown. His performance in the Swale put that fear to rest. Said his relieved trainer, Neil Howard, "I feel like I just won the goddam Kentucky Derby."
On St. Pat's Day, Pat Day was asked why he wasn't wearing anything green. The jockey simply pointed to his eyes, which are indeed green. That's also the color of rivals contemplating the positions in which Day and Nafzger find themselves.