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Steve Byk
DERBY 133: An 'Unbridled' Pleasure

By Steve Byk

Leaving Louisville Monday, with all the Derby hoopla having subsided and the Churchill backstretch returned to normal, one couldn't help feel the overwhelming satisfaction delivered by the 133rd Run for the Roses. After a Derby Trail season that prompted endless debate fueled by a glut of unconventional prep approaches, it was the horse that was the first and most obvious candidate that wore the rose blanket in a performance that instantly becomes part of Kentucky Derby lore.

After four years that spread the spotlight on a Saudi Prince's 11th hour purchase; a NY-bred gelding; a Cali-based chug-along and a Mid-Atlantic-connected tragic hero, the 2007 version of America's greatest horse race focused entirely on the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And the result came to the delight of the near-record crowd assembled at the big plant at 4th and Central. Street Sense, Carl Nafzger, Calvin Borel and James Tafel comprise a quartet of principals in this Derby victory that confirmed the provision to the sport of an embraceable star whose credentials scream tradition.

Street Sense, based at Churchill Downs and six months removed from his sublime Breeders' Cup Juvenile performance, reprized that effort like no Juvy winner ever had in a remarkable rail-skimming ride on the game's grandest stage. With Rick Porter and Larry Jones' Hard Spun having done everything required for a Derby win under Mario Pino by the top of the long Downs stretch, the son of Street Cry's outrageous winning run from the back of the pack provided fans with the kind of final act everyone hopes for in this august contest.

Nafzger, having etched a permanent monument in Derby history 17 years earlier with Unbridled and Francis Genter, tuned Street Sense to perfection for his second Derby victory while calling on every training trick in the book handed down to him by mentor and patriarchal racing legend John Nerud. Reconfirming his reputation for adroitly adjusting a horse for peak performance in a specific spot, Nafzger telegraphed Saturday's laurels for months with a quiet resolve and confidence despite several daunting setbacks in the horse's spring schedule.

Borel, a roustabout Cajun character genuinely beloved in his adopted hometown, generated one of the most indelibly memorable moments in recent Derbies with an in-the-irons celebration on the track apron post-race that inspired Queen Elizabeth to require his attendance at a State Dinner in Washington DC. Borel's abundant certainty in the agility and talent of Street Sense, allowed him to attack the classic test with the same on-the-wood approach he employs any other day at the Downs. He had in fact utilized the same map earlier on the card on Helen Pitts' Silverinyourpocket. It's hard to believe that any other rider that might have stood on the podium Saturday evening would have been as popular a winner as Borel.

Tafel, with nearly three decades in racing and a Nafzger client with the outstanding Banshee Breeze and Unshaded, reached a zenith in the game with a Derby win as owner and having home-bred Street Sense through his mare Bedazzle. Brought into the game by Dogwood and Cot Campbell, the 83 year old Tafel joined owners like Genter, Carl Partee (Lil E. Tee) and Paul Mellon (Sea Hero), whose dedication to the sport was rewarded in the most tangible way possible via the game's most coveted trophy. In an era of sport sorely lacking in graciousness and modest celebration, Tafel was and is a welcome and worthy recipient of the laurels the 'racing gods' bestow. With the focus now turning to thoughts of a Triple Crown try, we will see how generous a mood those deities are in...

With the victory, the sun finally made a weekend-long delayed appearance, as the connections made their way back to the Paddock and the adjacent interview room. And after a Derby Trail season which featured a multitude of odd approaches to the race by many of the key players, the sun
set on a highly contented Churchill Downs. With the focus immediately shifting to Baltimore and the Preakness, Col. Matt Winn's wondrous event had again aptly served its' annual assignment of offering the game a spectacle to set hearts aflutter and the insular sport alight.

No matter how obscure and archaic racing seems to the sporting world at large, for the two minutes it takes to crown a Derby winner every first Saturday in May, it is the undeniable object of desire and interest for anyone who has a soul. The 2007 edition did its' part to initiate this arduous five week odyssey. The burden of continuing to hold the spotlight and maintain the adoration through Old Hilltop and Big Sandy now falls to Nafzger, Tafel, Borel, and a seemingly able colt that became the first two year old Champion to annex the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

As welcome as this team's results were to Louisville, equal success in Charm City and the Big Apple would widen the appreciation to a level the game has not seen in decades. Ideally, those racing gods are as hungry as we are for the emergence of an immortal.