LOUISVILLE, Ky. — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Street Sense emerged from Barn 26 in the Churchill Downs stable area with his ears pricked forward and his eyes taking in the crowd that was watching his every move.
As the 3-year-old star moved toward the racetrack, the crowd followed along behind him until the horse suddenly just stopped. Street Sense paused and then turned his head around to look back at the entourage.
Oh, if horses could only talk.
Well, they do talk, trainer Carl Nafzger said. But evidently they only talk to the people who take care of them.
"This is a happy horse," Nafzger said earlier this week after Street Sense had made it to and from the track and clocked a desired 1 minute, 1.1 seconds over five-eighths of a mile. "We let him have fun. I told Calvin [Borel, the jockey] to let him do what he wants to do. And that's what he did.
"The big thing going into the Kentucky Derby is his attitude. It's all up to him."
That's the way it has been from the beginning for this Street Cry colt. The first time the trainer saw him in the field, owner-breeder James Tafel told him: "There's only one thing wrong with him: He's perfect. The only way he can go is down."
But he hasn't gone down. He leads the field for tomorrow's Derby with graded stakes earnings of $1,482,000, and he has won one of his two races this year. And the one he lost was by a nose.
"They're prep races," Nafzger said. "What are you going to learn winning or losing by a nose? Noses. What I can tell you is we laid out a schedule for this horse and he's done the work and taken us to every race we had planned for him."
There are those who say Street Sense is the best in this 20-horse field. Trainer Doug O'Neill, who has Great Hunter and Liquidity in tomorrow's race, said if he could pick any horse to be in his barn, it would be Street Sense. And D. Wayne Lukas, who has no horses in this Derby, said the colt should be the favorite.
But many racing historians say Street Sense doesn't have a chance and hasn't had a chance since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, because no horse has won the Derby after being the Juvenile champion.
Nafzger was asked, does that mean only mediocre 2-year-olds can win the Kentucky Derby?
Nafzger has been asked this question before, but perhaps not quite like that.
"What are you getting at?" the trainer said.
Just that a brilliant 2-year-old who won the Juvenile has never won the Derby in the Juvenile's 23-year history.
"It's all mathematics," he said. "It's simple. There are 35,000 thoroughbreds born in one year - throw out the fillies - and you cut it in half, the number that actually reaches the racetrack. That's 17,500. Then 12 horses run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and one wins. Then there are still 17,500 going into their 3-year-old season, and 450 of them are nominated to the Kentucky Derby. Twenty get in. So if he [the Juvenile winner] gets in, it's still 19-1 that he can win.
"It's all simple mathematics."
Based on the mathematics, are the odds turning in his favor?
"If anyone ever figures out horses, there won't be any trainers," he said. "There will only be five horses, and they'll all be owned by the sheiks and the billionaires. It's 19-1. Every horse in the race is 19-1. That's what makes horse racing horse racing. ... But if he gives us his best race and he gets his lane, we can win."
Nafzger, 65, knows a lot about what makes horse racing. He won the Derby in 1990 with 20-1 shot Unbridled. He also wrote a book called Traits of a Winner, and he isn't shy about quoting it.
"I said in that book there are four traits that make a winner," Nafzger said. "Ability, soundness, mental health and the immune system. No one talks much about the immune system, but it's just as important as the other three. It's like you get sick, then all stressed out. Your mind goes, your soundness is gone and you're no longer able to make the most of your ability."
Right now, Nafzger said he has a healthy horse ready to run.
"Life's simple," he said. "I take care of him, and he tells me what to do. All the other clutter, I keep out of my head."
Notes -- King Leatherbury, the third-winningest trainer in history, will run his 4-year-old star Ah Day in tomorrow's Grade II, $250,000 Churchill Downs Handicap over 1 1/16 miles. Ah Day will be ridden by Mario Pino. ... John Shirreffs, who trained 2005 Derby winner Giacomo and is back this year with Tiago, was holding court with several reporters yesterday when one made a statement that stopped him cold. "O.J. Simpson just picked your horse to win," a reporter said. The football Hall of Famer toured the barns yesterday and said he envisioned the Derby winner as "Tiago at the wire." Told of Simpson's comment, the soft-spoken Shirreffs smiled and said slowly, "Oh, sure," and waited for the next question.