Highest Five

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It was early evening on Memorial Day in 1982 and Dr. J. David Richardson had just returned home from Churchill Downs, where, in pre-simulcasting days, he had to go into the racing office to watch the Met Mile from Belmont Park on a small, black-and-white TV. Conquistador Cielo ran off the screen, romping to a 7 ¼-length win while setting a track record of 1:33.

“My wife said Woody (Stephens) called and wanted me to call him at the barn,” Richardson recalled. “I called him and he was still riding high from the way the horse ran.”

Stephens told his cousin, who had been involved in the purchase of the horse for $150,000 as a yearling at Saratoga, that he had a crazy idea: “I think I’m going to run him in the Belmont.”

That would be the Belmont Stakes, with a post time approximately 120 hours after the Met Mile. They agreed to talk again Tuesday. 

The next morning, it was a done deal. Conquistador Cielo, a Florida-bred son of Mr. Prospector out of the Bold Commander mare K D Princess, would indeed start in the 114th Belmont Stakes five days after winning the Met Mile. Predictably, not everyone thought Stephens was doing right by the horse including a few with the ear of owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski.

“Henryk had some powerful people telling him he couldn’t do that,” Richardson said. 

What the naysayers didn’t understand is that in Stephens’ mind, this was not a case of needing – or hoping for – lightning to strike. Those closest to the Hall of Fame trainer were keenly aware of that.

“I remember his level of confidence being extremely high for the Belmont,” said Phil Gleaves, a Stephens assistant from 1977-85. “The day after the Met Mile, it wasn’t ‘Let’s take a shot.’ He said, ‘We’re going to run Saturday and he’s going to win.’ It was Joe Namath all over again.” (Note to those not of a certain age: Google 1968 NY Jets.)

Had Woodford Cefis Stephens not been so bold and supremely confident in his horse’s ability to tackle a Triple Crown race on such short rest, we may have been deprived of one of the most impressive training feats in the history of Thoroughbred racing, because you can’t win five Belmont Stakes in a row if you don’t win the first one. 

If fans were allowed to attend Saturday’s delayed and shortened Belmont Stakes, they might pass by “Woody’s Corner” inside the clubhouse entrance, a fitting tribute to a man and a streak Gleaves described as “one of the greatest achievements in all of sports, not just horse racing.”

Here’s a look back at the five winners, with help from those associated. 

1982 – Conquistador Cielo

Gleaves also served as Conquistador Cielo’s exercise rider and would often be accompanied in the morning by Stephens on a pony. “All we talked about that week was the Belmont,” Gleaves said, “and how he would win this race. Woody didn’t see a way this horse was going to get beat.”

As Richardson put it, “He told Henryk to wear his best blue suit because he was going to get his picture taken.” 

Stephens was thrown a curve ball the day before the Belmont, when his go-to jockey Eddie Maple was injured and hospitalized. Rather than seek a last-minute replacement from the Belmont jocks’ room, Stephens placed a call to Tony Matos, the agent for Laffit Pincay Jr., who was named on several mounts at Hollywood Park June 5. 

“It was after the sixth or seventh race (on Friday) and my agent came down and told me, ‘We’re going to New York tonight,’ ” Pincay said. 

Pincay was running late getting to LAX and learned that the airline had sold his seat and the flight was full. He took a redeye to Boston, changed planes in the shadow of Suffolk Downs, and arrived at Belmont Park just before noon. 

Pincay had won stakes races for Stephens but had never ridden Conquistador Cielo, who drew the outside post in the field of 11. He was getting on a horse that had skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – no horse ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown for the first time in 48 years – with Stephens opting for four allowance races heading into the Met Mile. 

Coming off the Met Mile tour-de-force, Stephens knew his horse was keen to run and he instructed Pincay to keep him outside early on, as far away from his foes as possible. Gleaves said Stephens wanted the horse to be close to the gap where the horses enter and leave the track for training, thinking that he would relax as he ran by the spot he was accustomed to pulling up in the morning.

“Woody thought if he dropped to the rail too soon, he might have gotten too revved up and wouldn’t be able to go a mile-and-a-half,” Gleaves said.

Pincay followed the plan and stayed five paths away from the nearest horse until the turn, when he came in somewhat, but remained outside rail-running Anemal and Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler. Conquistador Cielo edged in front of Anemal as they straightened out on the backstretch and was leading after a half-mile in :47 1/5. He opened a 4-length advantage at the mile call and proceded to run up the score in the Belmont slop, winning by 14 1/2 lengths at 4-1. 

“That was one of the easiest wins I ever had,” said Pincay, who won 9,530 races in his Hall of Fame career, with the 1982 Belmont his first in a Triple Crown race. 

“That was a towering achievement, to win the Met Mile on Monday and the Belmont on Saturday,” said Steve Crist, who covered all five of Stephens’ Belmont triumphs for the New York Times. 

1983 – Caveat

Owned by a partnership that included August Belmont IV, grandson of Belmont Park founder August Belmont Jr., who named the track for his father, Caveat was bred in Maryland by Ryehill Farm. The son of Stephens’ 1974 Kentucky Derby winner Cannonade won the Derby Trial before running a troubled third in the Derby. Stephens skipped the Preakness, running him in an allowance two weeks before the Belmont.

Maple, who couldn’t seem to catch a break when it came to getting on the right horse in the Belmont, had opted to ride Chumming in the Derby, opening the door for Pincay to get on Caveat. Stephens again had specific instructions on how the horse should be ridden.

“In the paddock,” Gleaves said, “Woody told Laffit to take the horse back as far as he possibly could and when he thought he had him back far enough, take him back some more.” 

Pincay followed the script and Caveat was 18 lengths back and 11th of 15 after a :47 2/5 half, and had only advanced to eighth with a half-mile to run. 

Pincay made a big move on the rail entering the far turn, but found himself in cramped quarters made tighter when Angel Cordero Jr. brought Slew o’ Gold in on Au Point, closing the door on Caveat, who bounced off the rail a few times while threading the needle. 

He made it through and went on to a 3 1/2-length win at 5-2, giving Mr. Belmont the opportunity to present the trophy to himself.

Despite the win, Stephens was not happy with Cordero being Cordero, and didn’t feel any bet-ter about it when it was determined that Caveat had come out of the race with a bowed tendon and would not race again.

“He had a hard time getting over that with Angel,” Richardson said. 

1984 – Swale

If you were to rank Stephens’ Belmont winners by ability, Swale would likely finish first, with Conquistador Cielo completing the exacta. After getting upset in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, Swale bounced back to win the Kentucky Derby. He ran a poor seventh in the Preakness, leaving Stephens “mystified,” according to Richardson.

“He just didn’t fire in the Preakness,” said Pincay, who was Swale’s rider due to Maple’s piloting Devil’s Bag to an undefeated 2-year-old campaign the previous year, making him the winter book Kentucky Derby favorite. He won three of four starts at age 3, including the Derby Trial, but suffered a slight fracture in his right knee and was retired to stud, having been syndicated for $36 million.

As for Swale’s Preakness flop, one popular theory is that he worked too fast after the Derby, something which Stephens and his staff made sure was not repeated before the Belmont.

“He did work fast, and his tongue came off the bit in the Preakness,” Gleaves said. “Woody used a tongue tie on him in the Belmont and he was a different horse.”

Sent off as the 3-2 favorite on a sweltering day, the son of Seattle Slew led virtually every step on the way to a methodical 4-length win. His 6-furlong splits were an identical 1:13 3/5 as Stephens and Pincay celebrated again and the trainer became the first to win three straight since Frank McCabe from 1886-88. 

“It was an exciting day,” Gleaves said. “Woody felt very confident going in and it was another very good performance by a very good racehorse.”

Stephens was especially happy to win for Claiborne Farm and close friend Seth Hancock, part of the ownership group that included Peter Brant and William Haggin Perry. Stephens thought the 1984 Belmont might be his swan song; he had broken a few ribs early in the year and was hospitalized with pneumonia after the Lexington, getting discharged two days before Swale won the Derby.

“He told me the day before the Belmont this would be his last hurrah,” Richardson said. “He thought Swale would be his last great horse.”

As it turned out, Stephens was far from through – training his last winner 12 years later – though, sadly, that was not the case for Swale.

Eight days after the Belmont, Stephens and his wife, Lucille, were heading to Hot Springs, Ark., for a vacation. Swale went out for a routine gallop under exercise rider Ron McKenzie and was getting a bath back at the barn when he collapsed and died.

“It was devastating,” said Gleaves. “Everybody in the barn was in tears. It was a horrible thing to see.”

“You have to wonder what that horse could have been,” Richardson said.

1985 – Creme Fraiche

If the question is, what could Woody do for a third encore, he had that figured out too: run 1-2 in the Belmont, with Creme Fraiche and Stephan’s Odyssey. The modestly bred winner (Rich Creme out of the Terrible Tiger mare Likely Exchange) was the first gelding to capture the Belmont.

The triumph was noteworthy for the human connections involved, from owner Betty Moran to Stephens to Maple, who finally found himself in the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle aboard a Stephens horse, beating Pincay by a half-length.

“I always knew he had it in him,” said Maple. “He got a track he liked, a hot trainer and a hot jockey. Everything fell into place.” 

For Maple, too, at last. 

“Naturally, I was disappointed,” at missing out on the first three, he said. “I don’t think I ever brought it up more than casually. Woody and I had been together a long time. It was a good time in our lives and I appreciated being part of it.”

Maple finished his career with 4,398 wins, and in 2009 joined Stephens in racing’s Hall of Fame.

Creme Fraiche had won the Derby Trial and finished second in the Jersey Derby to Spend A Buck, the Kentucky Derby winner whose connections skipped the Preakness in successful pursuit of a $2 million bonus. A $160,000 Keeneland yearling, Creme Fraiche closed from 10th in the 11-horse Belmont, with Maple taking him outside on the far turn and winning a stretch duel with rail-running Stephan’s Odyssey, owned by de Kwiatkowski. The entry paid $7 to win, with champion 2-year-old Chief’s Crown, the beaten favorite in all three Triple Crown races, third.

“Henryk thought he had won it,” said David Donk, who had started working for Stephens a few months earlier. “He was hugging Woody and Woody told him to go hug Betty Moran, because she just beat him.”

While a gelding’s winning made for a nice story, it wouldn’t do anything to enhance the value of Stephan’s Odyssey as a future sire, something Stephens’ good friend Charlie Whittingham was quick to point out.

“Charlie called Woody a few days after the race and said, ‘You’ve gotta be the dumbest SOB I’ve ever seen, letting a gelding beat that colt. It might cost you a million dollars,’ ” Richardson said, still chuckling 35 years later.

The advantage of having a good gelding is there’s no rush to retire him, and Creme Fraiche ran until he was 7. His total of 64 career starts was one fewer than Stephens’ other Belmont winners combined, and he earned more than $4 million.

1986 – Danzig Connection

In order for Stephens to win an unthinkable fifth straight Belmont, he would have to get the better of fellow septuagenarians Whittingham and Walter Kelley. 

Whittingham, 73 and five months older than Stephens, showed up with Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, while the 79-year-old Kelley saddled John’s Treasure in just his fifth career start.

Stephens countered with Danzig Connection, who had won the Peter Pan with Pat Day aboard. Day was committed to ride Rampage, the eventual 5-2 favorite, in the Belmont. Pincay was on John’s Treasure and Maple rode Bordeaux Bob, opening the door for Chris McCarron to pick up his first mount for Stephens.

“I was in England the day of the Peter Pan, so I didn’t see the race,” McCarron said. “My wife was watching and she heard Pat Day say in an interview after the race that he was committed to ride Rampage, so she told me I better call Woody and see if I could get on Danzig Connection.”

The track came up wet for the third time in five years and that could not have been better as far as Stephens was concerned. Danzig Connection, co-fifth choice at 8-1, relished the slop and ran like it.

“He came out of the gate running,” said McCarron, who picked up the first of his six Triple Crown race victories in a Hall of Fame career. “I was able to get him to relax enough to lay second (behind Mogambo). Woody told me if I could make the lead without asking him, just sit until I had to ask him. He pulled me into the lead into the far turn and I sat until we passed the three-sixteenths pole. Once he changed to his right lead he sailed home. I never hit him.”

The de Kwiatkowski homebred was 1 1/4 lengths better than John’s Treasure, who beat Ferdinand by a neck. As Stephens made the familiar walk down to the winner’s circle, the Belmont crowd broke into a chant of “Woody, Woody, Woody,” leaving Donk with a lasting memory.

“Every time I tell the story, I get chills,” he said. “It was a Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle moment.”

And even if Danzig Connection might have been the least likely of the Belmont winners, by that point Stephens figured he would somehow end up in the winner’s circle.

“We were celebrating back at the barn after Creme Fraiche won in 1985,” Donk recalled, “and Woody pointed to Barn 4, where all his 2-year-olds were stabled, and told us, ‘The next one’s over there; you just have to find him.’ ”

They did, the streak endured and, although Gone West came up short in 1987 seeking a sixth win for his trainer, Stephens had already trained himself into Belmont immortality.

“I went to Woody Stephens University,” Donk said. “I knew I was working for a legend in his own time.”

Photos on previous pages of Swale and Conquistador Cielo by Coglianese/NYRA.