There are several obvious things about this event; the atmosphere, among the most electric in sports; the site, even beneath the famed but now dwarfed twin spires, and the crowd, 150,000-strong that is as much a cross-section of America as any event, anywhere. Yet somehow the race itself transcends all.
That’s what happens when three of the first four finishers come from 17th, 19th and 20th and the winner, at Churchill Downs anyway, proves clearly the best of his generation because of his
electric turn of foot, a trainer who brings out his best while not reaching bottom, and a race-rider who believes his horse can do anything.
Street Sense, a throwback racehorse, one that never runs a bad race, that comes from behind no matter what and let the pace be damned. No comparisons quite yet, but when he starts to crank that kick he comes on like Kelso and comes on like Forego and comes on like John Henry. He just doesn’t stop coming.
Trainer Carl Nafzger, who makes a plan then lets the horse tell him. And, as told by Steve Haskin of Blood Horse, who takes the time to call his mentor, John Nerud, and thanks him for it all, for teaching him how to train a racehorse and about pedigree, where it all begins.
And then he tells Nerud how he’s now going to meet the press now and tell them how smart he is. So in tune with reality, he wouldn’t even commit to the second leg of a storied Crown until late the next morning, when the horse would let him know.
With deference to the leaping Avelino Gomez and Angel Cordero and Frankie Dettori, Calvin Borel has now set the bar for post-race exuberance so high that it might never be reached again. Jockeys have made my cry often in my career but never while watching them celebrate a victory.
He made you feel the spirit of Daddy Borel, and his brother’s nurturing love and the love of every manner of racetracker that happened cross his path as he and Street Sense worked their way back to the winner’s circle, a trip seemingly as long as the one that carried him from the bayou to the bluegrass. Like some equine Bukowski, it was high fives for all his friends.
Derby 132 produced a star that sadly turned into a comet. Hopefully the star of Derby 133 will be a pensioner when Derby 153 is renewed on the first Saturday of May, 2027. Until then there’s a lot more in store for Street Sense on the racetrack, a colt that felt so good the morning after the Derby that his trainer didn’t shed-walk him but sent him out to jog instead.
The bad news for the division and good news for Triple Crown fans is that Street Sense appears to be getting better, stronger. In a television interview on the Capital OTB Television Network, Borel promised after the Blue Grass that Street Sense would be 20 lengths better in the Derby. When given a chance to recant, he refused.
According to Equiform performance figures, the improvement from the Blue Grass to the Derby was 14.84 lengths, 1 Equiform point equaling 2.375 lengths when comparing 9-furlong races to 10. So Borel was close enough. The final figure also represented a lifetime best effort.
In Preakness terms, the negative for Street Sense is that it will not be run at Churchill Downs. The colt has won elsewhere but his best races, by far, have come at Churchill Downs. And his trips had nothing to do with it.
Horses are given credit for speed, which is immeasurable, and heart, or courage under pressure, which is not. But good horses are never given credit for making their own luck, especially when partnered by a terrific race-rider. All race-riders are jockeys; not all jockeys are race-riders.
While Street Sense was clearly the best of them, the Derby had three winners, including runnerup Hard Spun and show finisher Curlin. Hard Spun also produced a career best figure in the Derby. What made the effort extraordinary was the enervating pace he set. But he didn’t tire. He kept is energy up from gate to wire. He simply was outrun by the winner in the final furlong.
Curlin visually impressed more in defeat than he did while winning the Arkansas Derby. Given the Derby’s level of competition, added distance, unfamiliarity with the surface and a shuffled-back trip, Curlin did extremely well to finish third, earning a figure only a tad slower than his fast Oaklawn Park romp.
So imagine that. A Derby with three winners and easy-to-cheer-for connections. They’ve run this race 133 times and it never gets old, sometimes only better.