Unbridled Joy: The Horse Who Gave Us a Moment to Remember

April 27, 2020

Keeneland Library Morgan CollectionDell Hancock

Sitting on a bookshelf in my office is a reproduction of one of my middle school art projects. As a writer, I am far more comfortable creating with words than with paints or clay so the odds of creating something memorable were stacked against my eighth grade self. Thankfully, my art teacher allowed us to choose the subjects for our assignments so, when it came time to choose an image for my textual pointilism project, I pulled from my favorite subject: horse racing.

At home, I thumbed through my stack of photographs I had collected from Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, the NTRA, and more and found my most recent captivation: Unbridled. The image of Craig Perret’s head buried in the colt’s neck, the colt frozen in flight for the wire seemed like the natural fit for this latest assignment. The memory of his owner Frances Genter’s delight as trainer Carl Nafzger narrated Unbridled’s trip toward the finish line at the Kentucky Derby brought a smile then as it brings a lump to my throat now.

Little did we know just how unforgettable that moment and the colt at the heart of it would be for this sport and its fans.

The Joy Begins

William McKnight thought he had gotten his fill of horses growing up on a South Dakota farm. In fact, he had spent his working life part of the team growing Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing from a fledgling mining company into 3M, the multinational corporation that we know today. In his later years, McKnight was a wealthy man who had rediscovered the joys of the horse, this time as a two-dollar bettor at the racetrack. This fondness for the sport of kings led several 3M employees to chip in for a racehorse as a gift to McKnight upon his 70th birthday. That horse turned out to be a filly named Aspidistra.

As a racehorse, Aspidistra was not an immediate success, but McKnight was hooked nevertheless. He bought more horses and then a Florida farm that he named for his Tartan Stable. McKnight even became a racetrack owner, investing in Calder Race Course near Miami. When Aspidistra was done on the track, McKnight brought her to stand at Tartan Farms and then hired trainer John Nerud, who won the Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man among his many champions, on to train the racing stock and manage the bloodstock side of the farm. With Aspidistra and then the mare Cequillo as the farm’s foundation mares, Nerud and McKnight grew Tartan into a breeding operation that turned out winners like Codex, Minnesota Mac, and Dr. Fager.

Before William McKnight passed away in 1978, Virginia and James Binger, his daughter and son-in-law, took over Tartan Farm. With Nerud, they continued breeding and racing into the 1980s, but the costs of running an expansive farm like Tartan began to mount and the income from breeding and racing was not enough to justify keeping all of the farm’s breeding and racing stock. In late 1987, Tartan sold about 90% of its horses, including the mare Gana Facil and her weanling colt, both purchased by Mrs. Francis Genter-Knudtson, better known to the racing world as longtime owner and breeder Mrs. Francis Genter.

The petite Francis Ackley had grown up frightened of horses, but her husband Harold Genter loved horses and horse racing. Francis grew to love the sport and the gorgeous animals at the heart of it and the couple raced their horses in her name for the five decades they were involved. They bought their first horse in 1940 and spent the next 50 years racing as a modest stable, counting 1986 Breeder’s Cup Sprint champion Smile, 1967 Florida Derby winner In Reality, and 1959 champion two-year-old filly My Dear Girl amongst the horses that raced in their colors. Mrs. Genter kept the stable going after Harold’s death in 1981 and, by 1987, had had many dealings with Tartan Farms, standing Smile as a stallion there and purchasing multiple horses from their breeding operation. When Genter purchased Gana Facil and her weanling colt at the dispersal sale in 1987, she was more than familiar with Tartan’s reputation as a superstar breeder with classic bloodlines. Those two purchases would prove to be fortuitous choices indeed.

Here Comes the Son

As a racehorse, Gana Facil’s wins came mostly in allowance races, with no stakes wins, but her foals more than made up for her shortcomings on the racetrack. Her pedigree made her an attractive broodmare for Genter: her sire Le Fabuleux had won several stakes in France and then had become a leading sire there as well. Her dam Charedi was a Tartan homebred, with Aspidistra, one of Tartan’s foundation mares, in her pedigree, making Charedi related to both Dr. Fager and the champion mare Ta Wee. The weanling Genter had purchased with Gana Facil was the mare’s first foal, a colt sired by Fappiano, a stakes-winning miler descended from Nerud’s own Dr. Fager.

Fappiano was much like his sire Mr. Prospector, a good racehorse that became a great sire, part of the dynasty that continues today with sires like Smart Strike, Curlin, Lookin’ at Lucky, and more. The combination of Fappiano with Gana Facil produced a tall bay colt whose blaze was the only white on him. Genter named him Unbridled.

It was not the first time Genter had had a colt with that name. The first Unbridled was a colt sired by Unbreakable, the grandsire of Native Dancer, out of a Blue Larkspur mare. He had some success running in the Chicago area in the early 1950s, even touted as a one-time Kentucky Derby prospect for the Genters. This second Unbridled with his connections to Mr. Prospector and Dr. Fager, generations of great Tartan breeding behind him, would take Mrs. Genter to another level of success. She sent him to trainer Carl Nafzger to begin his racing career.

The Son Grows Up

Carl Nafzger grew up on a Texas ranch, the cowboy life deep in his blood. He rode bucking bulls in rodeos until the late 1960s when he switched to training horses, starting out in Arizona and working his way east. After years of toiling with modest success, Tartan hired Nafzger as their trainer in 1981, with Mrs. Genter following suit not too long after that. When Unbridled was ready for racing, he went to Nafzger, with Ian Wilkes, future Breeder’s Cup winning trainer, as his exercise rider.

At two, the colt debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Arlington Park. His jockey that day was another future Hall of Famer, Mike Smith, who guided Unbridled to a 10 ½ length victory. Genter’s colt would not win again until his last start of the year in the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder, but his two-year-old season in 1989 saw Unbridled win or finish in the money in all six of his starts. This son of Fappiano and Gana Facil was slow to develop at two, eventually filling out his 17-hand frame. His performances at two hinted at what was to come at three.

Early in his three-year-old season, Unbridled rebounded from a lackluster fifth in the Tropical Park Derby to finish third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He was in the Kentucky Derby conversation, but Summer Squall and Mister Frisky dominated the news in March 1990. Additionally, uncertainty about who might ride Unbridled in the Derby started to percolate: Pat Day, one of the country’s top jockeys, had ridden the colt in the Fountain of Youth and also had been riding Summer Squall in all of his career starts. The Florida Derby was the next big Kentucky Derby prep, a logical choice for both Summer Squall and Unbridled. Who would Pat Day ride if both colts were entered for that race? What about the Derby? Day didn’t have to answer right away when Summer Squall opted for the Swale Stakes instead of the Florida Derby. Unbridled scored a decisive victory in the Florida Derby under Day, winning by four lengths. After finishing second in the Swale, Summer Squall would go on to win the Jim Beam and then the Bluegrass Stakes in the weeks before the Kentucky Derby, all with Day riding.

Unbridled faced Summer Squall in the Bluegrass, with jockey Craig Perret replacing Day, his second ride on the Fappiano colt. Though Mrs. Genter’s Derby hopeful finished third, Nafzger was undeterred: they were Louisville bound. Unbridled would be her first Kentucky Derby starter. After fifty years of breeding and racing, first with her husband and then on her own, Francis Genter had never had a Derby horse and now she had Unbridled, who was ranked third on the Louisville Courier-Journal’s list of the top ten Derby candidates. At the age of 92, though, Genter was not inclined to travel to Louisville to watch her colt run. Nafzger talked her into making the trip, reassuring her that she would have the right accommodations to enjoy the day. With limited eyesight and mobility, Genter usually watched her horses race at home. Her decision to join Nafzger at Churchill Downs for Derby Day paved the way for one of those moments that exemplify the joy that a great horse can bring to his people.

It Happened By Accident

On Derby Day, Nafzger had agreed to wear a microphone so that he could answer questions from the ABC broadcasters in the moments leading up to the race. Nafzger answered their questions and then unclipped the microphone, slipping it into his pocket as the horses loaded in the gate. A camera stayed on Nafzger and Genter throughout the race, but the trainer was unaware that the microphone had stayed live as well. Since sunshine obscured the monitor in their box and a petite Mrs. Genter was unable to see the track itself, she relied on Nafzger’s narration as her Unbridled ran his Derby, spending the first half of the race toward the back of the field, waiting for the right moment to make his move.

On the far turn, Summer Squall made his move for the lead, Unbridled moving with him. As they turned into the stretch, Summer Squall was on the inside and Unbridled on the outside of him, Day and Perret, running together on the lead. Momentum, though, was on Unbridled’s side. As Day urged Summer Squall on, Perret and Unbridled passed him. With the finish line looming, Summer Squall seemed poised to challenge Mrs. Genter’s colt one last time, but he came up empty and, under Perret’s urging, Unbridled widened his lead to three and a half lengths, flashing under the wire victorious. After a half-century of potential Derby horses that had fallen short of that goal, nearly a decade after her husband’s passing, Francis Ackley Genter-Knudtson had her Derby.

The finish of a race like the Kentucky Derby is emotional for anyone watching, whether it’s a thirteen-year-old girl in her living room in Alabama or the one hundred thousand plus screaming spectators at Churchill Downs. Nafzger’s ecstatic call of Unbridled’s win for a breathless Francis Genter, though, made that winning moment all the sweeter:

“We’re up to third,” as Unbridled made his move on that final turn. “He’s taken the lead. He’s taken the lead. C’mon, Unbridled. He’s taken the lead. He’s taken the lead. He’s on the lead, Mrs. Genter, he’s on the lead. He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win!”

Mrs. Genter covered her mouth with stunned joy. Nafzger continued his call, binoculars focused on their colt.

“He’s the winner. He’s the winner, Mrs. Genter! There he goes, right there. He’s the winner. He’s the winner. He’s the winner, Mrs. Genter.”

Nafzger gave Mrs. Genter a hug and a kiss. “He’s the winner. He’s the winner. He won it. He won it. You won the Kentucky Derby. Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you.”

Neither Genter nor Nafzger were aware that the moment had been captured until after the race was over, but their touching moment as Unbridled soared toward victory resonated for months after the Kentucky Derby. Even after Summer Squall beat Unbridled in the Preakness and then the Derby winner’s third place finish in the Belmont, Nafzger’s narration for Mrs. Genter made Unbridled’s Derby win the highlight of the year. The colt rewarded both Nafzger’s and Genter’s love for him with victories in an allowance race and then the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Belmont Park in October. Unbridled became only the second horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup Classic as a three-year-old, a rare feat since the Classic’s field includes older horses. The other was Sunday Silence the year before; twenty-five years later, American Pharoah would join them.

He Leaves a Legacy

At four, Unbridled opened his 1991 season with a win in a seven-furlong sprint race, beating Housebuster, one of the country’s best sprinters, with a move in the stretch that demonstrated just how fast the Derby winner could be once he was able to get momentum. Hoof issues plagued Unbridled the rest of the year: he had only one more win that year, but was able to factor at the highest levels anyway, finishing third in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. At the end of 1991, Mrs. Genter’s horse of a lifetime retired to Gainesway Farm for the first part of his stud career and then moved to Claiborne Farm in 1997. He stood there until his death from complications related to colic surgery in 2001.

At stud, Unbridled was a hot commodity, victories in distance races like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeder’s Cup Classic and in sprints like the Deputy Minister Handicap marking him as a versatile racehorse. With Fappiano, Mr. Prospector, Dr. Fager, Raise a Native, Buckpasser, and Native Dancer in his pedigree, Unbridled was continuing a legacy started decades before with horses like Aspidistra. As a sire, he produced 279 winners with 48 stakes winners from 582 named foals. His list of champions includes Banshee Breeze, winner of Grade I races like the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Apple Blossom Handicap, and the Alabama Stakes; Unbridled’s Song, winner of the Bluegrass Stakes and the Wood Memorial and sire of the world’s leading money winner Arrogate; Empire Maker, Belmont Stakes winner and grandsire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah; Grindstone, Kentucky Derby winner and sire of Travers Stakes winner Birdstone and grandsire of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird; and more. Even though Unbridled had only ten crops of foals, his legacy continues through sires like Bodemeister, American Pharoah, Arrogate, Liam’s Map, Will Take Charge, Tapit, and others

“This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of Paige Campbell.”

Thirty years after Unbridled’s Kentucky Derby victory, that moment between Carl Nafzger and Mrs. Francis Genter still comes up whenever one talks about those emotional memories that make the sport great. Mrs. Genter passed away in 1992, but the joy on her face lives on still in the images of Unbridled’s Kentucky Derby win. Both Carl Nafzger and Craig Perret have retired from their racing careers, enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame their reward for all of their accomplishments on the racetrack. Their connection to that special horse has endeared them to a generation of racing fans who recall that Kentucky Derby with fondness.

Thirty years on, that visual version of Unbridled’s Kentucky Derby win sits in my office alongside other horses, all with a special place in my heart. His image reminds me of what brings people into the sport of kings, those instants of greatness that resonate in our hearts, feats that live in our souls long after that day is done.

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