Carl Nafzger: From Ring to Race Course

It’s not every day that you see a professional athlete retire from one sport and find success in an entirely different one. But former bull rider Carl Nafzger did just that. After transitioning from the rodeo circuit to the Thoroughbred racetrack, the trainer would go on to develop three Eclipse Award winners, win the Kentucky Derby twice, and eventually be inducted into the horse racing Hall of Fame. But one of his greatest achievement happened 25 years ago right here in the Spa City, when he entered the talented filly Banshee Breeze in the 1998 Alabama Stakes.

“I was really confident in her going into the Alabama,” Nafzger says of Banshee Breeze, who would go on to become the 1998 Eclipse Award winner for Champion 3-Year-Old Filly. “She was a good and consistent filly and she was in top form at the time.”

In the Alabama, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey rode Banshee Breeze to a six-length romp over Lu Ravi, with favored Manistique finishing third. Banshee Breeze returned to Saratoga as a 4 year old in 1999 to win the Grade 1 Go for Wand. She carried high weight in that race—11 pounds more than runner-up Beautiful Pleasure. Overall, Banshee Breeze won or placed in 17 of her 18 starts and earned more than $2.7 million.

“I had been coming to Saratoga for a while, but that was my first really big win there,” Nafzger says of the 1998 Alabama. “Banshee Breeze is a horse that deserves more credit than she receives. I’ve been fortunate to train some good ones and she’s right there with the best of them.”

Nafzger himself went on to win a second Alabama in 2007 with Lady Joanne and two editions of the Grade 1 Travers Stakes with Unshaded (2001) and Street Sense (2007). Voted the Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer in 1990, he retired with 1,130 wins. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2008. Now retired and living in Kentucky, Nafzger regularly returns to Saratoga for the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. 

“I’ve been fortunate to win some of the biggest races at Saratoga and I’ve had some great times there,” Nafzger says. “The town really loves racing and the sport’s culture and I can’t think of too many places that can match its history.” 

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