He could easily have ended up like so many old cowboys do, wasting away in some little prairie town, living in the past and drifting, aimless as a tumbleweed. "A lot of those old cowboys just can't do it when it comes time to make the adjustment," says trainer Carl Nafzger. But he was lucky. He had the love of a good woman, a gift for working with animals and, more than anything, a desire to make sure that he wouldn't end up like the cowboys in Willie Nelson's haunting song My Hews Have Always Been Cowboys: the ones "sadly in search of, and one step in back of, themselves and their slow-moving dreams."
Nafzger's salvation was thoroughbred racing, a sport in which he found what he liked most about the rodeo: the freedom of life on the road and the satisfaction of figuring out what makes an animal tick. So when he married the schoolmarm, just as in those old Western matinees, Nafzger didn't ride off into the sunset. He learned and worked and improved until, last year, he arrived at the very top of the racing game.
Looking at him now, it's difficult to imagine him riding a bull, a black cowboy hat on his head, his thin body lurching this way and that as he struggles to hang on for dear life. But that was what he was—and, deep down, still is. At 49, Nafzger is more polished, able to move easily through the elegance and sophistication of racing's upper crust. Only the twang, Texan all the way, gives him away. And maybe the hands. The big, thick hands of a man who knows what it's like to do manual labor and to make beasts, savage ones in some cases, do his bidding.
His old cowboy pals must have loved it last May 5, when he finally won the Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race in the world. There was Nafzger, all duded up and wired for sound by ABC, calling the race for Mrs. Frances Genter, the 92-year-old pillar of the racing establishment, who had come to Churchill Downs to watch Unbridled, her first Derby starter after 50 years in the business. What happened as the splendid bay swung out of the turn for home and began moving powerfully for the lead has already become a part of racing folklore.
February 11, 1991
"He's taking the lead," Nafzger yelled to Unbridled's owner as the TV audience looked on. "He's gonna win, Mrs. Genter, he's gonna win! He's gonna win! We won it! You won the Kentucky Derby! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you, Mrs. Genter!"
Was that sweet or what? And the next day, with a hint of tears in his eyes, there was the old cowboy saying, "If I never win another Derby, at least I won the right one, because of Mrs. Genter." He could never show that kind of emotion at the rodeo. It would just never do, that's all, because you have to be tough and hard and mean in that rough-and-ready sport. Wanda, Carl's wife and partner, had a lot to do with teaching him something of the softer, gentler side of life.
They met in 1963, at a Denver rodeo where Carl was riding, and he became so smitten with Wanda Judson, the dark-haired, soft-spoken special education teacher, that he began writing letters to her and calling her from all the places the rodeo took him. They were married five years later, and have been a team ever since. He trains the horses; she takes care of the books. But more than that, they have hung together, comforting each other in the bad times and rejoicing quietly together when fortune smiled.
Here are Carl and Wanda for you: The night Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby, they went to a small Italian restaurant in a Louisville shopping center, and, said Carl, "had some good food and a cold Heineken." And the next weekend, instead of blowing off steam in some city, they made a sentimental journey back to Arizona, back to where Carl once rode a lot of rodeo bulls and where, two decades ago, the two of them had begun campaigning horses at small tracks, those other bullrings of sport.
"Wanda and I have been real lucky," Nafzger says, thinking maybe of what might have been. "We don't have a special magic or anything. We just had a dream, and, after 22 years, we made it. But we're not going to change. I still drive the same ol' Buick and I didn't go out and buy Wanda a big diamond ring or anything. That's just not us."
One of Carl's favorite movies is The Last Picture Show, because it reminds him of his hometown of Olton, Texas (pop. 1,800). The closest town to Olton that anybody ever heard of is Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University and Buddy Holly. Carl liked Olton, and still does, but he also wanted to get out as soon as he could. He wanted to be somebody, to do something important, and that's hard in Olton.
His grandfather on his father's side came over from Switzerland in 1887, settled in Monroe, Wis., and then moved on to Texas, where he joined the other homesteaders looking for cheap land. When Carl's father, Paul, inherited part of the family spread of about 2,000 acres, he supported his family with various kinds of farming. One year it would be cows, another year it might be turkeys or corn or cotton. But what fascinated young Carl more than anything else were the bulls.
"I'd come home from school and feed the bulls," he said, "and I finally talked my dad into building me a bucking chute. He put me on my first bull, a big ol Hereford who threw me two or three times and then sort of ran over me too. But I loved it. From that day on, I didn't want to do anything but ride bulls. I don't know why. It became an obsession."
That obsession led him to the rodeo, which is the only place you can make money riding bulls. The deal is rather simple, really. You get on a snorting, stomping animal that weighs about 1,200 angry pounds, the chute opens and off you go. The bull tries to toss you into the next county and you try to hang on. If you stay on for eight seconds, you qualify. If you don't, you're on your butt and it's a case of better luck next time, pal. 'The thing about the rodeo," Nafzger says, "is that you're completely on your own. There's nobody to buy your bus ticket for you, nobody to pick you up, nobody to cry if you break your leg."
He became a professional bull rider in 1960, a year after he graduated from high school. "Dad signed the card, and I was down the road," Carl says. From 1960 through '68, Nafzger competed on the Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, traveling as much as 80,000 miles annually, riding a bull somewhere almost every night of the rodeo year, from the day after Christmas until early the next December. You name the stop, and Nafzger probably remembers a bull from there: Amarillo, Calgary, San Antonio, Cheyenne, Laramie. The road goes on forever when you're a rodeo cowboy.
He made $13,000 in his best year, 1963, and retired in 1968, the year he married Wanda. Then he unretired for a while, in 1969, because he and Wanda needed money for their fledgling racing operation. By the time he got off his last bull, in 1971, he had ridden more than 1,500 of the animals in about 700 different towns. He had made it to the National Finals Rodeo three times, his best finish coming in '63, when he stayed on six of his eight bulls to take third in the overall bull-riding standings.
"It takes eight seconds on the clock to ride a bull," Nafzger says, "but if you've got a bad one, it can be an eternity."
Once he caught a bad one in Wahoo, Neb., that slammed him against a telephone pole. Nafzger has a steel rod in his left leg to remind him of that ornery animal. He also had his nose broken five times, his teeth knocked out and numerous bones cracked. The bulls had names like Tornado and Wild Man, and Nafzger would study them until he learned their habits, their quirks. The most dangerous of them were the unpredictable ones. "I remember one out of Mesquite, Texas, that had a real rubber neck," Nafzger says. "If he ever popped you, he'd hurt you."
In the fall of 1966, Nafzger and three of his fellow cowboys were on their way to the Cow Palace in San Francisco when they decided to stop off and take a look at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Ky. Impressed by the track's stately shade trees and its emerald paddocks, Nafzger turned to his friends and said, "Boys, someday I'm going to run horses here." To which one of his friends replied, "Carl, this is the kind of place where they wouldn't let you in the grandstand."
A decade later, Carl and Wanda took some horses to Keeneland for the first time; they have been a fixture there ever since. "A lot of people in Kentucky think I've lived there all my life," says Carl.
When Carl and Wanda first met, he was a cocky 21-year-old kid who was in love with the romance of the rodeo. He thought he was pretty hot stuff, too, swaggering around in that black cowboy hat, looking a little like James Dean in Giant—or so some of the girls told him.
"But he had good manners, too," says Wanda. "I think that's what I liked the most about him. Also, we both liked horses. They were my hobby, and I really enjoyed them, When we got married, I didn't mind living on the road because when you have pleasure horses, like I did, you're always going to horse shows."
Carl could have taken a job in the rodeo, been an arena manager or something like that, but Wanda persuaded him to give racing a try. She sensed, maybe before he did, that he had a knack for understanding animals. "A sixth sense," says John Nerud, the respected Florida horseman who was to give Carl his first big break. At first, though, Nafzger missed the cowboy life. Still does, sometimes, except for one thing.
"Your body takes a terrible beating when you're a bull rider," says Nafzger. "It's not anything big, like a broken leg, that gets you. It's the constant pounding, night after night. After I got out of it, it was about a year before I got up one morning and felt that something was different. I finally figured out that I wasn't sore all over anymore."
The Nafzgers started at the bottom of the horse racing business in 1968 and slowly worked their way up, traveling from New Mexico to California to Louisiana, until finally they arrived in Kentucky, the mecca of the sport. While Carl worked hard at learning to translate his gift from bulls to thoroughbreds—he even took a horseshoeing course at one point—Wanda helped make ends meet by teaching school.
It was a hard life, especially in the beginning, but Carl never tired of trying to figure out the thoroughbreds. "I'm a horse psychiatrist, not a horse trainer," he likes to say. And he never lost his optimism. After a disappointment, he still says to Wanda, "We're gonna start this day all over again." In the glove compartment of the cluttered 1990 Buick Park Avenue that serves the couple as a sort of rolling office, Carl keeps a motivational tape entitled, "Be a Confident Winner."
"You have to visualize what you want to be and then be it," Nafzger constantly tells his 30 employees. "You have to review your mistakes, rerun everything you do and learn from it. I wished they'd had the video camera when I was rodeoing. I'd have been a lot better bull rider."
The break that every trainer looks for came to Nafzger in 1979, when William Floyd, an old-time Kentucky breeder, gave him a yearling colt named Fairway Phantom to train. The colt looked so promising as a 2-year-old the next year, winning the Breeders' Futurity at Keene-land and the Arch Ward Stakes in Chicago, that Carl and Wanda thought they might have their first Kentucky Derby horse. But Fairway Phantom chipped a bone in his knee and never made it to the Derby. Nevertheless, Floyd was impressed with Nafzger and recommended him to Nerud, the esteemed trainer and head of Tartan Farm in Florida. Nerud took such a liking to the cowboy that he encouraged Mrs. Genter to give Nafzger a string of her well-bred horses to train.
"John Nerud was the first guy to put enough stock in my barn to give me a shot and, at the same time, keep the owners off my back so I could prove whether I could train or not," Nafzger says.
Even if a trainer has the gift, he can go only so far if he doesn't have the stock. Once Nafzger started getting horses with talent, his career went steadily forward. His Broken N Stable—so named because Carl was the first male Nafzger in three generations to break the tradition of staying around Olton—became a respected operation on the Florida-Kentucky-Illinois circuit in the 1980s. In 1986, he won the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland with his 2-year-old colt Orono, beating Alysheba, who went on to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby. And he trained multiple stakes winners Smile and Star Choice for the Genter Stable.
Last year, the stable made more than $6 million, four times its previous best. Besides winning the Kentucky Derby, Unbridled came back on Oct. 27 to win the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park. And Nafzger had another nice 3-year-old, Home At Last, who won the $1 million Super Derby in Louisiana.
After the Classic, Nafzger was annoyed when the press asked him if he felt he had finally "arrived" as a trainer. Carl thought the question implied that he and Wanda had been running some kind of mom-and-pop operation that happened to get lucky. "I've been around for a while, but it's only now that anybody has started noticing," Nafzger says. "Unbridled will go someday and so will Home At Last, but we'll still be around."
He can get riled up, too. In the giddy aftermath of the Derby, while he was waiting for Mrs. Genter and her family to arrive in the Churchill Downs winner's circle, Nafzger, wearing a raincoat with an ABC sticker attached, paced restlessly, blocking some photographers' views of Unbridled and jockey Craig Perret.
"Hey, ABC," yelled one perturbed cameraman. "Get outta the way, ABC. Get down, ABC."
Eyes flashing, Nafzger spun around and shouted, "I train the son of a bitch, and we're waiting for the people who belong in here."
End of discussion.
Then there was the incident before the Belmont Stakes, when Nafzger and Unbridled arrived at the Belmont Park stable area, only to find that the Kentucky Derby winner didn't have a stall.
"We finally got it worked out," he says, "but I was still fuming when I looked over at Unbridled and saw he had stretched out in the stall and gone to sleep. I thought to myself, Well, now we know who's got the real class in this outfit."
Nafzger became irritated again when, after Unbridled had finished a dull fourth in the Belmont, it was suggested that the colt had run poorly because he hadn't been given a dose of Lasix, the controversial antibleeding medication that is illegal in New York. Nafzger then swore that Unbridled would come back and prove himself on the same track in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
On that fall afternoon at Belmont, Unbridled made his trademark big kick under jockey Pat Day, split horses inside the eighth pole and drew off to a solid one-length victory. Said Nafzger, "I don't guess I'll be getting any more questions about Lasix."
Last Dec. 9, a windy, overcast day in South Florida, Nafzger took Unbridled to the track between the fourth and fifth races at Calder Race Course, near Fort Lauderdale, so the colt could gallop. It was Unbridled Day at Calder, and the first 10,000 customers at the track were given free photos of the horse who won the Derby and the Classic.
The next day, Carl and Wanda took a rare afternoon off to go deep-sea fishing in the Florida Keys. On the way to the dock, Nafzger talked about how he gets the most out of a thoroughbred.
"I listen to the horse," he said. "I let him tell me what he wants to do and what he doesn't want to do, and then I adjust. Horses never make mistakes, only the people handling them do. And it's the same for just about any horse as it is with Unbridled. The development of the horse, that's the thing. A claimer can be a nice horse to watch if he's honest."
The Nafzgers arrived at Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina, carried a big tub of fried chicken on board the Caribsea and ordered Captain Dave Day to cast off. Half an hour later, the boat was being tossed around by eight-foot waves, causing Nafzger to grin and yell "Whoopee!" every now and then, just as if he were riding a bull. This went on for 2½ hours until finally, when one of his guests became ill, Carl reckoned it was time to get back to shore. "Motion doesn't bother me," he said. "When you're a rodeo cowboy, you learn pretty quick you're going to die."
Back on shore he signed an autograph for Captain Dave's mate and climbed into the Buick to head back home. On the way, he picked out a little tavern and pulled over to go inside and have a beer.
As he relaxed, Nafzger talked about Unbridled's past performance chart for 1990, which made the colt look sort of like a bucking bronc. Up and down. Only four wins in 11 starts. Between the Derby and the Classic, Unbridled's only victory came in a mile allowance race at Arlington Park near Chicago.
"I can't really say I blame the jockeys for any of his losses, because of my style of training," Nafzger said. "I don't lead a horse over there at the razor's edge every time. Horses can't take it, they're not machines. I had Unbridled fit and ready when he needed to be. What did the horse ever do that was bad? But a lot of the writers got mad at the horse because he wasn't unbeatable."
Still, in a year when most of the best horses were sidelined by injuries, Unbridled stayed around for the entire campaign, running his first race in January and his last in October. In his 11 starts, he never ran a really bad race. Besides his four victories, he had three seconds, two thirds, a fourth and a fifth place, for total earnings of $3.7 million. Part of Nafzger's philosophy is, "It's not how many you win, but the ones you win." By that standard, Unbridled was perfect in the two races that every horseman wants most to win—the Kentucky Derby and the Classic.
"Winning the Kentucky Derby is like being Miss America," he says, "because you become a spokesman for the game for a year." Still, Carl and Wanda are keeping it all in perspective. Nafzger remembers well when, as a young man, he had proudly showed an old cowboy a newspaper clipping that complimented his bull riding. "Carl," the old guy said, "them bulls can't read."
"When you win the Kentucky Derby, your life changes," said Nafzger, back on the road again, a tape of cowboy songs playing on the car stereo. "It makes you stop and contemplate what's really going on in your life. One day after the Derby, I looked at a picture of myself in the winner's circle and I said, 'Wanda, that's not me.... They're trying to make me into a horse trainer!' "
And what is he, if not that?
"A cowboy," said Carl, grinning. "I'll always be a cowboy at heart."