When Street Sense was running next to last along the backstretch, Carl Nafzger didn't flinch as he watched the Kentucky Derby unfold from the owner's box at Churchill Downs.
"Never thought about it," the trainer said Sunday morning between sips of coffee outside his barn. "He was a long way back in the Breeders' Cup, too."
And just as he did in winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year over the same track, Street Sense made an electrifying run around the far turn, picking off every one of his rivals and capturing Saturday's Derby by 2 1/4 lengths.
Certainly, the win was not as overpowering as ill-fated Barbaro's 6 1/2-length romp a year ago. The morning after that race, trainer Michael Matz was convinced he had the next Triple Crown champion in his barn. The same chatter didn't take place at Nafzger's barn, but the trainer who won the Derby with Unbridled in 1990 had some words to remember leading to the Preakness Stakes in two weeks.
"I have not been able to get to the bottom of the horse yet," Nafzger said. "One day, we will, but I haven't seen it yet."
Which may not bode well for the rivals lining up against Street Sense in the 1 3-16-mile Preakness at Pimlico. Derby runner-up Hard Spun, who looked like a winner before jockey Calvin Borel guided Street Sense past him in the final furlong, will be back for another shot.
"He's awesome," Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones said, referring to Street Sense.
"But he's more awesome at Churchill than anywhere I've seen him."
The key to beating Street Sense in the Preakness is preventing Borel from getting his colt to the rail, where Street Sense has put together several sensational dashes to the finish.
In the Derby, Borel (aka "Bo-rail" for his affinity to race along the rail), passed most of the field on the rail, then found a hole outside to get past a few more and go on for the win.
"If he has to come around at all it's going to be a whale of a horse race," Jones said, looking toward the Preakness. "I might even beat him. But he just gets in through the hole so fast that nobody shuts him off."
So can Street Sense win the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes three weeks later and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
"I'm sure going to try to keep it from happening," Jones said.
There are many reasons Nafzger has so much confidence in Street Sense. From the moment he and owner James Tafel set eyes on him as a foal at Chesapeake Farm in Kentucky, the trainer knew he had a something special.
"The only thing wrong with this foal is he's too perfect," farm owner Drew Nardiello told Nafzger. "He doesn't have anywhere to go but down."
So Nafzger drew up a schedule for his star in the making. A well-thought out 2-year-old campaign of five starts culminated with his record 10-length win in the BC Juvenile on Nov. 4. Next up, Nafzger chose to defy Derby history by running his colt in only two preps, knowing full well only one horse since 1947 had pulled off the feat.
"If he can't get there in two preps, he won't get there with three," Nafzger said.
That created yet another piece of Derby history Street Sense would have to overcome. The other was a pair of jinxes. Spectacular Bid in 1979 was the last 2-year-old champ to win the Derby, and no BC Juvenile winner had gone on to win the race, an 0-for-23 mark.
At the end of Saturday's postrace news conference, Nafzger asked the final question: "What do y'all think about that jinx now?"
Street Sense has four wins in eight career starts, has never finished worse than third and has earnings of more than $2.9 million. He may not have as many wins as some other 3-year-old, but Nafzger doesn't care.
"This horse has never run a bad race," he said. "He's done everything he's supposed to. This horse took us here. I can't say enough about him." So he kept going.
"Great football teams get beat and great horses get beat, too. But, yes, this is an exceptional horse, very exceptional."
So was Barbaro, who took off in the Preakness as the favorite before shattering his right hind leg at the start. He was euthanized in January after a gallant eight-month fight for survival.
Just as he was at the Derby, Barbaro will be honored at the Preakness, but racing fans will be looking for a new hero. The way Nafzger sees it, Street Sense might be able to fill the role.
"I don't know how much he can do down the line if he's 110%," Nafzger said. "I'd like to have an answer."