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Derby Winner Confronts Daunting Challenge in Triple Crown Pursuit

ASSOCIATED PRESS SPORTS WRITER

Carl Nafzger may have won the Kentucky Derby in his first try, but make no mistake, the man has taken his knocks. Behind that million-dollar smile are more than a few false teeth.

Unbridled’s 48-year-old trainer once rode bulls for a living, which explains the denture plate he graciously popped out for inspection Sunday while regaling a crowd of reporters with tales culled from a rough past.

Nafzger himself got off the bulls and onto horses at the still-tender age of 27, his decision no doubt hastened by a rubber-necked beast known as Eighty-Four Wildman who, not content with simply throwing a rider, developed the curious habit of throwing his head far enough back to catch an unsuspecting rider flush in the chest.

“Like I said,” Nafzger explained, “you’ve got to love going against the grain if you’re going to ride bulls.”

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And the same can be said of anyone with designs on the Triple Crown. Because staying on top of the racing game as the nation’s top thoroughbreds point toward Pimlico and the Preakness may prove a good deal more difficult than Eighty-Four Wildman. And the air gets thinner from here on out.

Only 11 horses have gone on from victory in the 1 1/4-mile Derby to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont--the first to turn the trick being Sir Barton in 1919, the last, Affirmed, in 1978. And a glance at the fates that befell the most recent Derby winners reveals what a formidable task Unbridled and Nafzger are up against.

For one thing, the Derby winner is a marked man, or, as was the case two years ago with Winning Colors, a marked woman. The filly had only hours earlier broken a jinx of seven unsuccessful tries with 12 horses for D. Wayne Lukas in 1987 when the trainers he had finally beaten began planning their revenge.

Everyone knew that the filly could run from the front, and when she did it again to win the Derby, rumors floated on the backside the next morning that more than one of her challengers at Churchill Downs would be coupled with a speedy entry whose only purpose at Pimlico would be to keep Winning Colors from running into the lead at her leisure.

Then rival trainer Woody Stephens took the scuttle one step further, vowing that he was prepared, if no one else was, to use his exceptional colt Forty Niner to ensure that the filly wouldn’t have her way in the Preakness.

“I might finish last,” Stephens said, with some bitterness on that Sunday two years ago, “but she’ll be next-to-last.”

And true to his word, Stephens burned up Forty Niner in a desperate gambit to send Winning Colors’ Triple Crown hopes up in flames. It ignited one of the more heated controversies in racing in recent years, but in truth, it only made public a code that horsemen have honored for as long as thoroughbreds have gone to the post.

Now, Nafzger doesn’t inspire the same sort of passion among his colleagues that Lukas does. Besides, Stephens isn’t drawing cross hairs on Unbridled or anyone else for the Preakness. But that doesn’t mean that the horse and owner who wore the roses so recently won’t be in for a little extra attention at the Baltimore track two weeks from now.

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“Unbridled likes to run from behind and I guarantee you this,” said Laz Barrera, trainer of the previously unbeaten Derby favorite, Mister Frisky, “there won’t be 16 horses there, there will only be eight or so.

“I knew Unbridled was a good horse all along. But the race (Saturday) was made for him. He needed that pace,” he added. “But he might not get it like that again.”


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