Of all the great champions and incredible upsets the Breeders’ Cup has brought us over the past 27 years, my favorite race was just a few years ago, in 2006.
It isn’t a coincidence that it was my first time at the event, held at Churchill Downs on a bright, crisp Saturday that would turn downright fridgid by the time the Classic rolled around. But my favorite race was the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day.
I was perched atop a bench overlooking the paddock, a spot I had captured as soon as the gates opened at 8am. There were scads of people already crowding the inside of the paddock and encroaching upon my bench even that early in the day, but as long as I could still see over them, it didn’t matter to me. The field for the Juvenile filed into the saddling area to gentle applause from a group in front of me. Todd Pletcher’s Scat Daddy was one of the favorites, as was Circular Quay. There were lots of people around those 2 colts, and the TV crews congregated near them, their white-bridled faces splashed across the big screen that overlooked the paddock.
As I looked down the row of stalls, I noticed the first one was filled with only a dark brown horse, a groom and single other man wearing a long, tan trench coat. I thought the colt might be a schooler, but I did a double-take when I realized it was, in fact, the #1 horse and the trench-coated man was Carl Nafzger. It was Street Sense, the colt who had run 3rd to my pick, Great Hunter, at Keeneland.
Being a fan of Unbridled and Nafzger, I was a little surprised that no one was around the Derby-winning trainer that day. Surely his charge had a chance – he didn’t show up at these big events unless he had a real contender.
The jockeys came out and Calvin Borel walked over to Street Sense and Nafzger, and still no one else approached them. Their stall was an oasis among the roiling sea of people.
Borel and Street Sense would lead the parade of colts out to the track. Less than 10 minutes later, the pair lead the field under the wire by 6 lengths. It was the beginning of the Borel legend, the last-to-first, rail-skimming ride at Churchill Downs. Street Sense became a Derby horse that day, and the subject of a terrible jinx: no BC Juvenile winner had won the Kentucky Derby.
We all know what happened 6 months later – Street Sense, and eventually Hard Spun, Curlin and Rags to Riches, would provide us with the greatest Triple Crown season since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.
And it all started that chilly day at Churchill, with the dark brown colt and his trench-coated trainer, standing all alone.