HORSE RACING : When a Lane Opens, Joy Is Unbridled


When trainer Carl Nafzger arrived at Gulfstream Park Saturday and opened the racing program, he was offended. His champion colt, Unbridled, was listed at 3-1 in the morning line -- odds that suggested his chances were moderate at best.

"Three to one!" Nafzger huffed. "Don't they read the Racing Form?"

But he recognized that the oddsmaker's appraisal reflected a general lack of enthusiasm for Unbridled. "People just don't appreciate this horse for what he is," the trainer said.

Indeed, even after winning America's two most important horse races in 1990, Unbridled never attained star status. His triumphs were underpublicized; his failures got him criticized as an in-and-outer, a one-dimensional plodder.

After Saturday afternoon, however, Unbridled was finally being showered with accolades. He beat the country's champion sprinter, Housebuster, at his own game, winning a seven-furlong race with a performance that might give goosebumps to the most jaded racegoer. The stretch-runner looked as if he may be the most exciting racehorse of 1991.

Unbridled should have become a star when he won the Kentucky Derby last spring, but he was upstaged by his owner. The most enduring memory of that day at Churchill Downs was the television image of Nafzger hugging 92-year-old Frances Genter and exclaiming, "You won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter!"

Hardly anybody remembered Unbridled's strong stretch run. And when Unbridled won the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, he was largely ignored amidst the shock and grief over the death of the filly Go for Wand.

Between his two big triumphs, Unbridled lost the Preakness, the Belmont and every other major race in which he ran. Nafzger can offer an explanation for all of those defeats. He even accepts some of the blame. "The jockey and the trainer might have beaten him," he said. "But no horse ever beat him."

This isn't exactly true. Unbridled's failings largely were the result of his own running style -- and the nature of American racing. The colt does not leave the gate quickly, and he possesses no tactical speed. Such habitual stretch-runners find themselves at a huge disadvantage in this country.

They often are hindered by the resilient, speed-favoring nature of many racing strips. Their chances are hurt in any race in which the early pace is slow. They usually will be forced to rally on the outside and lose valuable ground around the turns.

The most talented U.S. racehorse of the 1980s may have been the stretch-running Turkoman, but he created too many problems for himself, lost too many big races and never was recognized as a great champion. A similar fate befell Unbridled last year: He ran into heavy traffic in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, he was parked six-wide all around the track in the Super Derby. He lost too much ground in the Preakness.

Nafzger is keenly aware of the importance of luck and tactics to his horse, and he sums up last year's Triple Crown campaign in a nutshell: "In the Derby, the lanes opened for us. In the Preakness, the lane opened for Summer Squall."

Nafzger saw Saturday's race in the same terms, and he told jockey Pat Day, "If you get through, you're going to win."

Few other people thought that Unbridled would have a chance in the seven-furlong Deputy Minister Handicap, regardless of the way the race unfolded. His 3-1 odds, with Housebuster the 2-5 favorite, seemed a realistic assessment. Housebuster, after all, was the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 1990, and there might not be a horse anywhere in the country capable of beating him at seven-eighths of a mile.

As Housebuster sped out of the gate and vied for the early lead, Day permitted Unbridled to drop back to last place. With three-eighths of a mile to go, Unbridled still was 15 lengths behind the leader. Day did manage to save ground around the turn, and Unbridled was in high gear when he entered the stretch. Even so, he still seemed hopelessly far behind.

But Nafzger says: "When he makes his run, it can be devastating" -- and indeed it was. Unbridled caught Housebuster in midstretch and flew past him as if the champion were standing still, winning by three lengths in the brilliant time of 1:21 4-5. The mark of a great stretch-runner is the ability to run the last eighth of a mile in 12 seconds. Unbridled ran each of his last three furlongs at a sub-12-second clip.

It is no exaggeration to say that most sophisticated racegoers at Gulfstream were stunned by the brilliance of the effort. Even the customarily noncommittal Daily Racing Form footnotes to the race began, "Unbridled, in a spectacular performance. ... "

The Deputy Minister Stakes gave the horse a degree of respect that he never had before, even after the Kentucky Derby.

Nafzger hopes this race will be only the beginning of a spectacular season. He said Unbridled will make his next start in the Oaklawn Handicap April 13 and, after that, "We're definitely looking at the Pimlico Special." He said Unbridled is much stronger and more mature than he was as a 3 year old, but he couldn't promise that the horse would be much more consistent.

"He's not basically any quicker," Nafzger said. "He'll get beat a couple of times this year when the lanes don't open for him."

Now that racing people know just how good Unbridled is, Nafzger hopes they will be more forgiving on the inevitable occasions when he is a victim of circumstances.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World