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My Favorite Breeders’ Cup Race

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.

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FAVORITE BC RACE #3: JINX-BREAKER

Street Sense wins the BC Juvenile in 2006.  Meanwhile, I was freezing my butt off in the paddock watching it on a realy big TV.

Street Sense wins the BC Juvenile in 2006. Meanwhile, I was freezing my butt off in the paddock watching it on a realy big TV.

My favorite BC Juvenile is the one I actually got to see in person.  Or close to it.  I attended the 2006 BC at Churchill Downs, where it was cold but sunny, and Bernardini got his ass handed to him by INVASOR.  In true Infield fashion (or close to it, since the actual Infield was not open on BC day), I got up at the crack of dawn and stood in line an hour to snag a prime spot on the rail of the paddock.  I even got a bench!  Wooot!  All day long, I stood on the bench, leaned on the back of it, even balanced precipitously on its very top to take slightly blurry photos of the contenders as they walked around the ring. 

Before the 2nd race, I spied Carl Nafzger in the paddock, waayy over to the side in the #1 saddling box.  I snapped a quick picture of him getting Street Sense ready and then turned my attention to Great Hunter, who I was rooting for after his win in the Keeneland Lane’s End Futurity.  Somewhere in all my scads of pictures I have the one of Carl. 

I stood on the bench as the horses went to post, and watched (the paddock jumbotron)  with glee as the horse from the #1 hole galloped away with the whole thing.  Street Sense had won so easily, Calvin Borel loved him so much, I just fell in love with the colt, too!  Great Hunter remained a favorite of mine, despite his 3rd place finish, but I vowed to return to Churchill the next spring to watch Street Sense try and break the Juvy Jinx.

I kept my promise, and 6 months after his rail-skimming Juvy victory, Street Sense repeated that trip in the Kentucky Derby, in front of 150,000+ people, me in the infield, and the Queen in the grandstand.  It was awesome.  I cashed a nice ticket with him, too.

Street Sense tried to break another jinx as well, the BC Juvy-BC Classic jinx, but he faltered last fall, running 4th to Curlin in the slop at Monmouth.  He now resides at Darley in Lexington KY.  One of these days I’ll get around to see him again, and tell him I was there for his 2 best trips around Churchill Downs!

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