Street Sense Blazes a Path

Calvin Borel, Street Sense
Jockey Calvin Borel stands high in the irons astride Street Sense and salutes the Churchill Downs crowd as he wins his first career Kentucky Derby on his fifth attempt. (Peter Jones - Reuters)
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 6, 2007

LOUISVILLE, May 5 -- When Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November by 10 lengths, the overpowering victory was attributed by many to a pronounced inside bias on the Churchill Downs dirt track.

In the 133rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday, jockey Calvin Borel returned Street Sense to the spot that had served him so well -- next to the rail -- and with a powerful, sustained drive, the two proved the earlier victory was no fluke. Rolling past one horse after another with stunning ease from 19th place, Street Sense collared the fast and stubborn leader Hard Spun with an eighth of a mile to go and ran away to victory in America's greatest horse race before a crowd of 156,635.

Even before Street Sense reached the finish, Borel, a jockey who mucks out stalls in the morning for his brother, trainer Cecil Borel, began to wave to the crowd with his right hand. Street Sense won the 1 1/4 -mile first leg of the Triple Crown in a solid 2 minutes 2.17 seconds, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Hard Spun. Curlin, the lightly raced morning-line favorite, rallied on the outside for third.

With the victory, Street Sense ended the 23-year streak in which no winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile had ever returned in his 3-year-old season to win the Kentucky Derby. The horse also became the first 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the race.

"This is the epitome of anybody in the horse business's racing career: to have a horse that crosses the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby," said owner James Tafel, 83, who bred the colt and has been with trainer Carl Nafzger since 1985.

Nafzger, 65, who won the Derby in 1990 with Unbridled, largely retired in 2005 and turned his horses over to assistant trainer Ian Wilkes. He stayed with a couple of friends who wanted him to continue to train their horses, and Tafel, a publishing executive, was one of them.

"Tafel says we both know our place. I create the bills and he pays them," Nafzger said after the victory.

"And I don't expect the day rate to go up," Tafel happily shot back.

Nafzger was serene and confident leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and, in hindsight, he had reason to be. Street Sense, in seven career starts, never had run a bad race. He struggled over the Polytrack surface in his final prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes, and still finished second to Dominican by a nose. Dominican ran 11th in the Derby.

When the gate opened, Street Sense broke well, but Borel chose to pull him back to the rear of the 20-horse pack, sensing a fast pace developing up front.

Hard Spun, ridden by veteran Maryland jockey Mario Pino, in his first Derby, beat long shot Stormello to the lead and ran the first quarter-mile in 22.90 seconds and the half-mile in 46.26 seconds. Pino, 45, never had been on the national stage in such an important race, but under pressure, he coolly did what he has been doing at Laurel Park and Pimlico for years: taking a talented front-runner to the lead and carefully managing his horse's energy.

Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, had been criticized for turning his colt loose for a rocket-quick five-furlong workout in 57 3/5 seconds just five days before the race, but the horse proved the critics wrong.

He ran gamely on the lead, three lengths in front and four turning for home, and serious challengers never materialized.

On the backstretch, Borel finally roused Street Sense and started to move on the inside. Heading into the far turn, they followed an open path cut by Zanjero, who made a brief move, and began to reach contention.

On the turn for home, Borel eased Street Sense off the rail and around long-shot Sedgefield and took off after Hard Spun.

"I stayed on the fence and then went around one horse at the quarter pole and it was just a matter of how much he was going to win by," Borel said.

Pino and Hard Spun hit the top of the stretch in the middle of the track but ducked down to the inside until they were racing on the rail. With a world of momentum, Street Sense ran up to Hard Spun and easily cruised around him on the right side.

At the end, Curlin was 5 3/4 lengths back in third.

"He's the best 3-year-old I've ever been on in my life," said Borel, who had ridden in four previous Kentucky Derbys, never finishing better than eighth. "I looked up and saw I was two or three lengths in front. It's the greatest moment of your life to cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby in front."

Nafzger gracefully endured nagging questions leading up to the victory: Could the Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx be broken? Did the victory in that race only look good because of the rail bias? Were his two prep races in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass Stakes enough preparation?

In the end, Street Sense answered them all.

"Can I ask you one question?" Nafzger said to the gathered reporters after the race. "What do you think about that jinx now?"

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