A half-mile into the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense was sucking up the dirt kicked back by 72 horse hoofs flying fast in front of him.
He had one horse beat. He had the daunting task of passing 18 more if he were to win this 133rd Derby as the favorite in the $2.1 million race. But he was also taking the shortest way, the path alongside the rail. The path was clear, as though meant to be his. This was the day the sun would shine for Street Sense, just as it had on Churchill Downs yesterday, drying out the track after two days of rain.
When Street Sense finally came off the rail near the quarter pole, burst loose and went after the two horses remaining in front of him, the Derby was as good as won.
“I said, 'Mr. Tafel, we’re clear, it’s up to him, it’s all his now,'” trainer Carl Nafzger recalled saying to the owner of Street Sense, James B. Tafel of Boynton Beach, Fla.
With jockey Calvin Borel practically leaping for joy in the saddle, Street Sense passed under the wire the winner by 2 1/4 lengths in front of Hard Spun, who finished 5 3/4 lengths ahead of third-placed Curlin. Street Sense paid $11.80.
As anyone could probably guess from Borel’s pumping his right arm, waving his whip, standing high in the saddle and then grinning while crying, this was the locally based jockey’s first Kentucky Derby win.
“It’s the most greatest moment in my life,” Borel declared in homespun words that might become part of Derby lore, something like jockey Don Brumfield saying after winning on Kauai King in 1966, “I’m the happiest hardboot hillbilly alive.”
Street Sense was notching a few significant “firsts” himself:
He became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win a Kentucky Derby since the Breeders’ Cup began in 1984. Thus, Street Sense, juvenile champion for last season, broke the Breeders’ Cup/Kentucky Derby jinx.
Street Sense also became only the third favorite to win the Kentucky Derby since 1979 when Spectacular Bid won this race.
He became the first-ever Kentucky Derby winner to show his stuff in front of Queen Elizabeth II of England, who was making her first visit to Churchill Downs.
Mostly, to the satisfaction of Nafzger, Street Sense, son of Street Cry out of the Dixieland Band mare called Bedazzle and bred in Kentucky by his owner, was winning his Derby off only two prep races this year.
He lost the latter one, the Blue Grass Stakes, by a nose three weeks ago.
Nafzger had remained steadfast despite public criticism of his unorthodox plan for getting Street Sense to the Derby. The vindication was in the winning race and the wide margin of more than two lengths that the bay colt won in 2:02.17 on a track labelled “fast.”
Ignoring the morning line that predicted undefeated Curlin would be favorite, the third-highest Derby crowd ever, of 156,635, made Street Sense a slight favorite over Curlin. Like Street Sense, Curlin also came to this Derby in an unconventional way, for he had never raced at age 2.
Street Sense, however, put on the same kind of show he had given the Breeders’ Cup crowd last fall when the championship day was held at Churchill Downs. On that occasion, Street Sense came from second-last of 14 starters to draw off and win by a dramatic 10 lengths.
He had lost his Keeneland race prior to the Breeders’ Cup, just as he lost at Keeneland prior to winning the Derby. In the three-week interval from the Blue Grass Stakes to the Derby, Nafzger never seemed to lose confidence in the colt.
So it was that Nafzger could say after the Derby yesterday that he did not worry when Street Sense started out the race with only one horse of 20 starters behind him. Likewise, Borel said he wasn’t concerned.
While Hard Spun made the pace the entire trip until Street Sense passed him near the quarter pole, Street Sense simply tucked over to the rail and stayed there until Borel later swung him out.
Up front, with those 72 horse hoofs racing ahead of him, the pace was setting up to the advantage of Street Sense. Hard Spun was going much too fast to survive 1 1/4 miles at the speed he was racing: 0:22.96 for the first quarter-mile, 0:46.26 for the half, then 1:11.13 for the six furlongs and 1:37.04 for the mile.
At that rate, Hard Spun and his closest pursuers (first Cowtown Cat, then Teuflesberg, then Sedgefield) had to feel the effects of going so fast. Hard Spun actually widened his lead at the mile post. But the race had already set up, with these fast fractions, for a horse coming from off the pace -- one not so tired as the leaders.
Curlin was also making his way forward somewhat ahead of Street Sense. So was Imawildandcrazyguy, who began the race last -- the one horse Street Sense had behind him in the first quarter-mile.
With these closers and others, like Circular Quay, gaining ground in the final furlongs to possibly pose a threat to the leaders, Street Sense was posing the greatest threat after making his way to third position on the rail. That was the precise second when Borel swung Street Sense off the rail.
He passed Sedgefield and Hard Spun. Borel kept riding hard and gave Street Sense no shot of starting to ease up before the wire.
“I looked under my arm and saw I was two or three lengths in front,” Borel said. “It’s the greatest moment in your life when you pass under the the wire in the Kentucky Derby in front.”
The trainer of runnerup Hard Spun, Larry Jones, said he could not have been happier with the way that colt ran. Jones said he had wanted Hard Spun to be in the lead. But he would have liked a half-mile perhaps two seconds slower than Hard Spun ran.
“At the top of the lane, he was running easy,” remarked Hard Spun’s jockey, Mario Pino. “But the winner came up and passed me.”
Third-placed Curlin, who had never been farther back than fifth in the early furlongs of his previous races, seemed surprised to find himself so far back in the Derby: 13th early-on.
“He shuffled back and checked himself a few times,” said his jockey, Robby Albarado. “He’d never had that experience before, to be behind like that. But turning for home he came running.”
Fourth-placed Imawildandcrazyguy, also benefitting from the fast early pace, “just picked up the pieces,” said jockey Mark Guidry.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who started five in this Derby, said he had no major excuses for any of his runners who finished sixth (Circular Quay), eighth (Any Given Saturday), ninth (Sam P.), 18th (Scat Daddy) and 20th (Cowtown Cat).