Wednesday, August 06, 2008
NO BULL! NAFZGER TOOK THE LONG ROUTE TO HALL OF FAME
It’s safe to say that trainer Carl Nafzger has taken the road less travelled on his self-described “unbelievable journey” from his father’s farm in Olton, Texas to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY where he was inducted on Monday morning.
It all began in the saddle. Not a horse saddle, but a saddle on the back of a bull.
The young Nafzger became entranced by the beauty and independent spirit of the bull. Even today, the legendary trainer known for his knack with a story will tell you that “…there’s nothing prettier than a bucket bull.” Few people would describe an animal known for its aggression as “pretty,” but then again, few people are legends in not one, but two industries centered on fickle animals.
“It’s a great honor, and I’m in awe of the responsibility of it,” said Nafzger. “The thoroughbred business has given me so much, and I feel unbelievably blessed.”
Nafzger joined the pro rodeo bull riding circuit in 1959. His 10-year career was illustrious not only because he knew how to ride, but also because he always entered the ring with one thing on his mind: respect for the animal. That respect was transferred intact to thoroughbred horses when Nafzger obtained his trainer’s license in 1968.
While the transition from rodeo star to horse trainer may be atypical, it wasn’t tricky, according to Nafzger.
“The bull rider and the horse trainer are a lot alike [in that] everything comes back to the animal,” said Nafzger, adding that the bull and horse are alike. “They’re…naturally independent, doing their own work… and have taken us everywhere we went.”
The bucking bulls catapulted Nafzger to rank third in the world in 1963 on the rodeo circuit, but championship thoroughbreds propelled him to his Hall of Fame induction in 2008. Recipients of Nafzger’s astute guidance include the late Frances A. Genter’s Unbridled, who won the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup Classic, and James Tafel’s wunderkind Street Sense, who won the 2006 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and came back in 2007 to win the Kentucky Derby, Jim Dandy and The Travers.
The secret to Nafzger’s longevity and lucrative career is his infallible moral compass and commitment to the horse. Trainer Ian Wilkes, who worked as his assistant before branching out on his own in 2006, says the best advice his mentor gave him was to “surround yourself with good people and never forget the horse.” Wilkes comments that Nafzger’s “strong sense of right and wrong [allow him to be] successful in whatever he does.”
Add respect for the novice as another one of Nafzger’s telling traits.
“Lots of people want to get into the business and don’t know how,” he said. “I try to help.”
These days, in semi-retirement, trainer focuses on bringing new people into what he describes as a “great, but very tough game.” The key to success? “You’ve got to manage,” Nafzger says sagely.
The interest in drawing people into the sport of kings follows Nafzger’s 1994 book Traits of a Winner: The Formula for Developing Thoroughbred Racehorses, where he lays the groundwork for how to spot, cultivate and reap the benefits from a thoroughbred, all the while “avoiding the pitfalls of the business.” He also contributed the forward for Vic Zast’s 2008 release The History and Art of 25 Travers.
It’s probably easier to predict the winner of this year’s Travers than it is to guess Carl Nafzger’s next move, since he’s charted his own distinct path to acclaim, first in bull riding, then in thoroughbred racing.
A bettor might make a play that Nafzger will be headed to Springfield, Missouri.
That’s where they induct people into the National Writer’s Hall of Fame.
Read more articles in the Saratoga category.