The crowd packed into a hotel lounge off State Road 40 on the outskirts of Ocala, Fla., the afternoon of May 5, 1990, buzzed about Florida’s horse in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
No mint juleps here. And no big hats with flowing ribbons floating high above spike heels, or sharp-dressed gents with fedoras chewing on fat Rocky Patel cigars. These were working class fans—farm workers, grooms, and exercise riders—most comfortable, both men and women, in Stetsons, boots, and blue jeans.
Their Derby hero this particular year was Mister Frisky, a compact chestnut colt of humble beginnings and a remarkable will to win. ABC Sports executives must have been pinching themselves because this blue-collar hero had won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) in a 41⁄2-length romp and now headed into the Derby with an unblemished 16-race winning streak. Heady stuff for a modestly bred colt his owner Marta Fernandez had bought for $15,000 as a 2-year-old.
Mister Frisky started his racing career in Puerto Rico, where he won 12 races at 2. At that point the son of Marsayas (a son of Damascus with a race record of two wins and $20,700 in earnings) had a sterling race record but didn’t command respect. Undefeated, sure, but who’s he beaten?
The time came to test Mister Frisky’s ability against tougher company. The colt made his first U.S. start in February of his sophomore year in the San Vicente Breeders’ Cup Stakes at Santa Anita, running for the barn of top trainer Laz Barrera. With Gary Stevens in the irons, he beat graded-placed Tarascon by a length. In his next start, the San Rafael Stakes (gr. II), he faced Ron McAnally’s Tight Spot and prevailed by 21⁄2 lengths. Tight Spot would go on to win seven graded stakes including the 1991 Arlington Million Stakes (gr. IT). The San Rafael finally delivered the seal of approval and respect, while the Santa Anita Derby victory stamped Mister Frisky as the Derby favorite.
Could Mister Frisky beat Citation’s streak? Could he become the fifth Florida-bred to wear the blanket of roses? Ocala horsemen thrilled at the possibility but were at the same time conflicted.
Another Florida-bred in the Derby field also commanded respect. A bay colt brimming with regal blood who was cultivated by one of the Sunshine State’s most powerful nurseries—Tartan Farms. Here was Unbridled, winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I) and being nearly overlooked at 10-1 (see page 18).
During the post parade everyone in the lounge gives final assessments of the field.
“Wow, he looks good.”
“Oh, he’s washing out.”
“Too keyed up. Not sure he’ll settle.”
An exercise rider in his mid 30s who used to ride alongside Unbrid-led’s jockey Craig Perret, leans over a table and points a finger over his whiskey on the rocks.
“Craig is as good as they come,” he says. “It’s Unbridled’s race.”
Mister Frisky gives TV viewers the thrill they are anticipating, breaking cleanly and gaining a good position early. He matches strides with pacesetter Real Cash all the way down the backstretch and even pokes his nose in front briefly just before the second turn. Unbridled has been racing in 11th place in the 15-horse field. As the field rounds the turn, Mister Frisky begins to fade while rolling on his outside are Summer Squall and Unbridled.
Unbridled takes control with an eighth of a mile to go, and the hotel lounge in Ocala fills with raucous shouts and cheering that carry him to the wire. High-fives for Florida crack throughout the room, drinking glasses clatter, and more libations are ordered.
Soon a close-up shot of Unbridled’s trainer Carl Nafzger and owner Frances Genter fills the big screen. Nafzger is calling the race for the diminutive Genter, who can’t see over the crowd.
“He’s a winner. He’s a winner. He’s a winner,” Nafzger is shouting. “You’ve won the Kentucky Derby. Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you.”
The hotel lounge falls silent.
Before the Derby, Mister Frisky had been one of those rare horses that had crossed over into mainstream sports coverage. His tale had been followed by major daily papers from Seattle to Orlando.
But when the Derby was over, a more powerful story took his place. An unforgettable and dynamic display of genuine emotion and humanity between a trainer and an owner made horse racing king once again, and Unbridled became America’s horse.