Raising a Derby Horse

Published June 30, 2017, evonews.com

By Christine King

This year’s 10th Anniversary of Street Sense winning the coveted Kentucky Derby offered me the honor and pleasure of visiting his owner, Ida Mae Tafel. She and her husband, James Tafel began their equestrian enterprise after James retired as CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Technical Publishing Co. in 1983. He sadly passed in 2014.

Street Sense and the Tafel’s storybook journey was enthralling to hear. In thinking about health, horses and the Kentucky Derby, there are numerous lessons, relationships of all kinds and a unique range of emotions unlike I’ve ever heard.

Street Sense was an enigma in the racing world. He was bred by an unproven stallion and broodmare. Tafel said, “You never do this in the horse business.” The first of Street Sense’s many defiances of racing tradition. The Thoroughbred also broke the long-standing “jinx” by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile AND the Kentucky Derby. Finally, the jewel horse ran only TWO races before the Kentucky Derby. This magical cocktail made Street Sense a hometown favorite and in 2007 attracted the third largest crowd of 156,635 spectators. One of whom was Queen Elizabeth II during her first visit to the United States. It was the first time a British Monarch attended the Kentucky Derby. All of the stars seemed to align that fifth day of May 2007.

Tafel is a thoughtful, bright, sharp and kindhearted woman. She says “There are no words in this world to explain the feeling of winning a Derby, and I have asked that question of another gentleman who won two years before we did and he said ‘It’s surreal.’” With intense emotion, Tafel says “You have to win it to really experience what it feels like.” Adding, “It’s excitement, you’re jumping with joy, can’t believe what you see, you didn’t know this would happen, it’s unexpected.”

After the win, the team, who Tafel affectionately refers to as “family,” makes the journey to the circle to greet Street Sense and jockey, Calvin Borel. She exclaimed, “They handed Calvin a bucket of water with a sponge, and he washed the horse’s face, and then he washed his own with the same sponge!” Tafel’s words radiated pride, and her eyes lit up with exuberance and emotion. I quickly learned winning the Derby has many deeply rooted lines of honor, respect, and relationships among the “family.” I just began my discussion with Tafel and knew I was in store for a fairytale story of tradition, love, and respect.

“When Bob Costas was on the stand with me and my family there was a lot of joy, happiness, and appreciation for what the horse has done, and how hard the trainer has worked to get the horse to that position in life.”

Street Sense’s trainer, Carl Nafzger met the Thoroughbred at the stable where the farmer told him, “There’s only one thing wrong with him. There’s nowhere to go with him because he’s perfect.” Nafzger knew he’d just received a gift.

Street Sense was a “come from the back” horse. “He came from the last position, and Calvin took him all the way to the front,” said Nafzger. “It was frightening,” adds Tafel, “There was a lot of emotion. Fear, excitement, elation, pride, love, adoration.”

I asked Nafzger how he felt after the win, “Confident, relief, I felt the world was mine, the pressure is gone, we broke the ‘juvenile jinx.” The first words Nafzger said to Street Sense immediately after the race were “You big dummy, you’ll do anything Calvin tells you to do,” he said with great pride. “He (Street Sense) knows what he did,” Nafzger continues, “He got a little cocky afterward.” And so he should!

While on the stand Tafel caught her first vision of Street Sense and shed tears of jubilation. She explains, “I didn’t go near the horse. I’m physically afraid of them. I also do not have a relationship with any horse.” She firmly said, “It’s very important to point out when we began this business my husband told me ‘I don’t want you falling in love with any of these horses, anything could happen, and I don’t want you to be hurt, this is run as a business.’

After the press photos everyone left and only Tafel and her hostess, Mrs. Melanie Onnen were on the stand which sat across the track from the bleachers. “As I stood there and looked up at all of these thousands of people, all of a sudden my right hand went up, and I was waving to them. The more I would wave the more they would scream and yell.”

“The spectators were very happy that I waved to them and noticed them,” Tafel adds “They admired the little old lady who was having fun and waving to them.” Tafel has sage advice for how spectators can best enjoy the race. “Enjoy the entire experience. Study the racing form, find a horse you want to place money on, root for that horse, scream, yell clap and do everything you can to pull that horse across the finish line,” She finishes, “And THAT is the excitement of going to a Kentucky Derby.”

“All of these things excite you and give you a feeling of accomplishment that your horse did this for you. There are no words to tell you how I felt.”

To this day, Tafel’s secretary sends her a weekly list of races to see Street Sense’s offspring. She watches religiously.

The police removed and secured the garland from the horse after press photos. The Tafel’s thought carefully about the garland. Mrs. Tafel commissioned it to be specially preserved. A clear preservation box is displayed in Tafel’s living room, which her son, Jim designed. It includes one of Street Sense’s horseshoes, a Churchill Down finish line post, and the garland draped over Calvin Borel’s saddle.

I asked Tafel what feelings emerge when sees it. “I feel elation, happiness, that we’ve truly been blessed by the good Lord to have gone down that path. Every day I pass it 100 times. I have the trophy and other memorabilia. Daily I get to admire and cherish them, knowing what the whole business is of owning a horse, racing it, naming it. We’ve truly been blessed to have what we have. Accomplishment is probably the best word to explain winning the Kentucky Derby.”

And with that, she thoughtfully and proudly led me through her home and with great care and respect showed me all of Street Sense’s accomplishments. I left with so much emotion and excitement I felt as though I had just won the Kentucky Derby!