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April 24, 2007

Who says it’s a house? Your most important possession is your Derby Horse

Trainer Carl Nafzger understands that the Kentucky Derby extends beyond Barn 26.[img_assist|nid=4534|title=Carl Nafzger|desc=Image courtesy of Horsephotos.com/NTRA|link=|align=left|width=133|height=200]That’s where Nafzger’s string is stabled at Churchill Downs — the home of Street Sense, the runaway winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Churchill Downs and one of the big favorites for the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Nafzger, his wife Wanda, owner James Tafel, jockey Calvin Borel and all the assistant trainers, hot walkers, grooms and exercise riders of Barn 26 have the ultimate stake in Street Sense’s upcoming Run for the Roses.But Nafzger, who won the 1990 Kentucky Derby with Unbridled, knows Street Sense will also be running for thousands of fans on Derby Day, and millions more seeing the race on television. Many with a couple bucks riding on Street Sense’s nose.“He’s not just our horse, he’s the people’s horse,” said Nafzger. “A favorite belongs to horse racing. Our job is to not mess him up so people can enjoy him with us.”The Kentucky Derby isn’t like other races.Fans watch and read about the prep races weeks ahead of the Derby in a passionate search for the one horse who can “do it.” Or they depend on someone who “knows” for advice. Over the years, fans develop loyalties that lead them to their picks, and once there, there is hardly any way to talk them off their Derby horse.In the 1940s and ’50s, Calumet Farm held a spell — well earned — over horse players, who ran to the windows to back Whirlaway and Citation and the other famous Calumet color bearers. Calumet’s devil’s red-and-blue silks “said” Kentucky Derby.In another era, four-time winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas was the go-to Derby guru. Then it was Nick Zito and Bob Baffert, who, like Lukas, came to the Derby with horses dead ready to win. Today’s winningest trainer is Todd Pletcher, who hasn’t won the Derby yet but intends to. Pletcher may start five horses in the 2007 Derby. Three won their final Derby preps.[img_assist|nid=4535|title=Street Sense|desc=image courtesy of Horsephotos.com/NTRA Jockey Calvin Borel allows Kentucky Derby contender Street Sense to gallop out after an early morning workout at Churchill Downs|link=|align=right|width=200|height=145]Many fans find their Derby horse by following their favorite rider. Years ago, Damon Runyon immortalized a “handy guy like Sande, bootin’ those babies in,” as Earl Sande won three Derbies. Later, Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack each won five Derbies and Bill Shoemaker won four. More recently, fans followed Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey. From 1987-97 those four riders won eight Kentucky Derbies, with seven seconds.Then there’s the name game. Spend a Buck and Smarty Jones had it. Valhol and Bally Ache did not. For this year, Curlin leaves me hurlin’. Scat Daddy is the name, they say. But while Scat Daddy can certainly Scat, it better be farther than his Daddy.And people love it when the old guys win. Like when Sea Hero won it for the “Old Men and the Sea.” That was Paul Mellon and MacK Miller, who bought their first horse in 314 A.D. Or, Mr. Cal Partee, who always wanted to win the Derby and finally did. Not sure who’s the oldest this year. Have to check some IDs.But try to steer clear of the mom and pop stories. The Kettle Family, down to one horse and a mortgage on the farm — that story seldom wins the Kentucky Derby. Generally, the richer the owner, the faster the horse.Regionalism comes into it. Californians bet California horses, and New Yorkers bet New York horses.That was Swaps vs. Nashua in ’55. Fans took sides, East vs. West. Cowboy trainer Mesh Tenney rode with Swaps in a railroad car from California to Kentucky. William Woodward, who owned Nashua, probably owned the railroad he rode in on.But Swaps won.This year, the New York money is certain to show for Nobiz Like Shobiz, who won in New York and is owned by the widow of Broadway music man Tommy Valando. Hey, wonder how old she is? She could be a Dual Qualifier.Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago is a brother of Giacomo, who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Owners Jerry and Ann Moss named Giacomo for the son of A&M Records singing star Sting. For good luck, they named Tiago for the son of A&M partner Herb Alpert.Does that stuff work?Oh, sometimes.But picking one’s own Derby horse — your horse — is certainly bigger than betting strategies and Beyer Figures. More like rooting for your favorite team. And nothing says you can’t throw ill-logic out the window and simply make a sharp selection. Back at Barn 26, Carl Nafzger has his.“He’s a perfect horse,” said the trainer. “He looks good, he’s sound, he likes to run, and does run.”Nearby, Street Sense pricked his ears.“Nah, I’m not talking about you,” Nafzger called to Street Sense.But he was. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com