A six-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, legendary trainer Ben Jones once observed, "Florida's climate is good for man and beast."
Indeed, the path to Kentucky Derby glory often runs through the Florida Derby. One of the marquee Derby preps, it was first staged at Tampa Downs in 1926 then moved on to Hialeah Park from 1929 to 1937. The late March race found a permanent home at Gulfstream Park in 1952.
Eleven winners of the Florida Derby have gone to take the Run for the Roses including Big Brown (2008), Barbaro ('06), Monarchos ('01), Thunder Gulch (1995), Unbridled ('90), Swale ('84), Spectacular Bid ('79), Forward Pass ('68), Northern Dancer ('64), Carry Back ('61) and Needles ('56). Union Rags, one of the top contenders for the 2012 Kentucky Derby, is slated to run in this year's edition on March 31.
Back in 1990 a little-publicized, handsome colt with a big stride named Unbridled turned up at Gulfstream Park to battle some of the best colts the East Coast had to offer in the Florida Derby. Bred by the fabled Tartan Farms in Ocala, Fla., when the outfit was dispersing all its stock, John Nerud, the president of Tartan, called Mrs. Frances A. Genter and recommended she buy a colt for $70,000. It turned out to be one of the great bargains in the annals of racing.
A petite, white haired client of trainer Carl Nafzger, Frances and her first husband Harold (he invented the pop-up toaster, now in the Smithsonian Institute) had been in the racing business for a half century. A lifelong resident of Minneapolis and a woman who took part in major racing decisions, Frances had turned 92 years old on February 17, and now finally had a top Kentucky Derby contender.
The son of the very high-class stallion Fappiano out of Gana Facil by Le Fabuleux, Unbridled was never out of the money in six starts as a juvenile.
He ran his first three races at Arlington Park in the summer of 1989, won his debut by 10 1/2 lengths, then finished third in both the Waukegan and the Arch Ward Stakes.
I thought after those Arlington races that he was our ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
”-- Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unbridled
"I thought after those Arlington races that he was our ticket to the Kentucky Derby" said Nafzger. "I knew he had everything to be a Derby horse -- the mind, the body, the soundness, the great attitude, the speed. The only thing I didn't know was if he had the class."
Nafzger grew up on a farm near Olton, Texas, where his father raised bulls.
It led him into the rodeo where he went to the national rodeo finals three times and in 1963, Nafzger was ranked third in the world in bull riding.
"It was quite a grind, I traveled about 80,000 miles a year and worked about 10 months a year, day and night," Nafzger recalled. "I loved the rodeo, but just like a jockey, you can only ride so long before he must stop."
Nafzger credits former Tartan Stable president Nerud for giving his training career a big boost.
"John did three great things for me," he said. "He put good horses in my barn, he gave me confidence to stick to my own theories and he kept owners off my back until I could prove that I could train horses."
The aptly named Unbridled was Nafzger's first "big horse." A winner of just three of his first ten starts, Unbridled kept improving throughout the spring. Unlucky in the Fountain of Youth, the colt overcame being boxed in down the stretch and bulled his way between horses to finish a hard-driving third.
Nafzger's old cowboy pals must have loved it when Unbridled entered the starting gates of the 1990 Florida Derby. Jockey Pat Day made sure Unbridled's connection didn't suffer from a case of deja vu. Even though his colt was in heavy traffic from the backstretch to the early stretch, Day was confident he had a ton of horse under him.
"I very easily could have pushed Roanoke, who is a very big horse, out of the way at the eighth pole and gone on to win the race," said Day. "But if I did that there would have been a very good chance that they could have taken our number down. So, I waited until it was obvious that Roanoke was finished and then just slowly finessed Unbridled out."
Unbridled blew by favorite Slavic and leader Run Turn and unleashed an unrelenting kick in mid-stretch to post an easy four-length victory. The race time of 1:52, the slowest clocking of the 1 1/8-mile race since 1955, didn't bother Nafzger a whit.
"Time is only really important if you are in jail. Pace makes the race," he quipped. "This is my biggest win. I have won some nice ones, but this is the Florida Derby."
"We had to run him against good horses over the winter to find out how much class he has and every race Unbridled had in Florida we learned something from," Nafzger said.
"This horse believes he can do anything," the trainer said after the race.
"Maybe he believes he can win the Kentucky Derby."
In his prep races Unbridled overcame traffic, demonstrated courage and looked like a horse that would come running at the end of a mile-and-a-quarter race.
Three days before the Derby, Unbridled ripped off six furlongs in 1:13. As for Pat Day, he found himself in the envious position of being the jockey of two top Derby contenders. When Day chose to ride the favorite Summer Squall, Craig Perret picked up the mount of Unbridled.
On an overcast Derby day Unbridled's odds blinked at 10-1 and never changed all day. Squaring off against 14 rivals in front of 128,257 spectators, the sun poked out from behind the clouds as the horses neared the starting gate.
When the gates sprang open, Unbridled dropped back toward the rear where the colt liked to race. Summer Squall bided his time down the backstretch but at the top of the stretch when Day turned Summer Squall loose the colt unleashed a powerful move sweeping past the leader Mr. Frisky on the outside.
Meanwhile, jockey Perret had weaved Unbridled through the field and set his sights on Summer Squall. Unbridled pulled up alongside his rival at the quarter pole.
"We came up on him pretty easy," said Perret. "I saw Pat [Day] hit his horse left-handed, and I said, 'You're in trouble.' Inside the eighth pole, I turned my stick on him and hit him, and he exploded."
He's gonna win! We won it! You won the Kentucky Derby! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you, Mrs. Genter.
”-- Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unbridled
The Florida-bred colt out-dueled Summer Squall through the Churchill Downs stretch scoring a 3 1/2 length victory and a time of 2:02. And who can forget Nafzger's touching commentary to Mrs. Genter when her splendid colt swung out of the turn for home and roared down the stretch? It has become a part of racing folklore.
"He's taking the lead," Nafzger yelled to the foot shorter colt's owner as the television audience looked on. "He's gonna win, Mrs. Genter, he's gonna win! He's gonna win! We won it! You won the Kentucky Derby! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you, Mrs. Genter."
Her hand over her mouth, she responded: "Oh gosh."
Unbridled nearly won the Preakness, and in November prevailed in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic and earned the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year old male of 1990.
A few years ago Nafzger reflected on his champion colt.
"It was as if he could talk," Nafzger related. "He always told me what he wanted to do in his training. I called him the 'gentle giant.'
"You train all your life and just hope to be around that kind of unbelievable horse. He looked at me the day before the [Kentucky]Derby and it was if he was saying, 'I'm OK.' The day before he died [in 2001], he had the same look; he was telling me, 'I'm OK.' "
Unbridled went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic that year en route to the 1990 Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old male. Nafzger earned his own Eclipse that year for outstanding trainer and Mrs. Genter was voted the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Owner in 1990. She died at age 94 in 1992.
Unbridled began his stallion career at Graham J. Beck's Gainesway Farm in 1992. Starting in 1997 he stood at Claiborne when Claiborne's Seth Hancock, Rich Santulli, and other top American breeders purchased Unbridled from the Genter estate. Syndicated into 40 shares worth $475,000 apiece, Unbridled proved to be an absolute steal.
He sired a classic winner, Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, and Breeders' Cup winner Unbridled's Song in his first crop. Unbridled produced a champion 3-year-old filly in Banshee Breeze in 1998, champion Anees in 1999, Preakness Stakes winner Red Bullet in 2000, champion juvenile filly Halfbridled and Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker in 2003, the 2005 champion 3-year-old filly Smuggler, and the notable Grade 1 winners Manistique, Eddington, Exogenous, and Unshaded.
He is the last stallion to have sired at least one winner in each of the U. S. Triple Crown races. Unbridled was also grandsire of the filly Eight Belles (sired by Unbridled's Song) who finished second at the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
In September 2001 Unbridled underwent a pair of operations for the removal of more than three feet of his intestine due to a benign cancerous growth. A month later the horse was treated for a severe bout of colic at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee clinic, where it was determined that the symptoms rendered his condition inoperable. At age 14 Unbridled was euthanized on October 18, 2001.
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He wrote a Sunday column on racing for several years for the Chester County (Pa.) daily newspaper and covers racing and the horse world for a number of regional magazines in the mid-Atlantic area. In addition, he has written many historical articles on the art world and business entrepreneurs for a variety of national and regional magazines. Contact Terry at email@example.com.