For nearly four decades Ernie Munick has been giving his heart and mind to thoroughbred racing. He is a writer, a vlogger , a musician, but most devotedly a handicapper and horseplayer. He can be seen twice a week on the NYRA Network's RACEDAY, and his videos for the Breeders' Cup can be found by clicking here.
The painting hangs just inside the clubhouse entrance, four or five lengths to the left. What I usually do is stand within comfortable viewing distance and spend about a minute recalling each event in The Streak. Five minutes in all. Five minutes straight.
It is the time of year to honor the untouchable and marvel again. There can be no conversation of the Belmont Stakes, or of Belmont Park itself, for that matter, without mentioning Woody Stephens. From 1982 to 1986 he trained five Belmont winners by five different sires, for four different owners, under three different jockeys. Only one was favored. The streaks of all streaks elevated the conversation from forgotten equine universe to DiMaggio and Ripken, Russell and Unitas. But Woody never swung a professional bat or jumped a hurdle, so maybe his genius should be measured not against our greatest athletic sequences, but against the men behind them.
Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Red Auerbach. This is where Woody belongs. He was the greatest horse coach I've ever seen.
During his stupendous run he beat Roger Laurin, Charlie Whittingham, Henry Clark, Sid Watters, Leroy Jolley, Billy Turner, Buddy Delp, Jack Van Berg, Shug McGaughey (twice) and D. Wayne Lukas (thrice). Lukas trained three straight Belmont Stakes winners but, as on the Richter scale, each unit carries dramatically greater weight as the number increases. Three straight Belmonts cannot touch five straight Belmonts. Everyone's watching and learning and targeting. Headlines are there to be gotten, records broken. Gone West, a one-turn colt, finally snapped The Streak but Woody was under enormous pressure to keep the record alive. Gone West couldn't get 12 furlongs if he'd swapped engines with Bald Eagle.
As for Lukas' six straight Triple Crown wins - sometimes mentioned as a similar or equivalent achievement - in three of those races Lukas fired double bullets (Thunder Gulch and Serena's Song, Thunder Gulch and Timber Country, Grindstone and Editor's Note). Woody shot a double-barrel once and ran one-two (Creme Fraiche, Stephan's Odyssey). That was dominance to an almost embarrassing extent.
Conquistador Cielo was the first in The Streak and the only one of the five to win Horse of the Year. To crush older horses in the Met Mile and then obliterate his rivals in the Belmont only four days later - in the face of several media who thought it impossible - CC (4-1!) might've been the coolest of the five. He was brilliant yet brittle, and Woody was creative in keeping him in one piece. Caveat was a classy, highly active stayer on all surfaces who beat an excellent field in the Belmont, but overall he didn't win enough to be considered great. Poor Swale fought so hard for a season and a half, had gone to the mat and won so many times as a juvenile, and was developing into what might've been a tremendous older horse. Woody said he was never quite the same after the Swale tragedy. Underdog gelding Creme Fraiche and Danzing Connection were wet-track specialists who were fortunate to get heavy rain on their big days. They were the least talented of the five, hence the more amazing feats of the trainer.
Woody had a relatively big barn but some were bigger. He had blue-blooded horses but so did others. The names of his Grade I winners can fill a hard drive, and so much of that glory was built on his affection and respect for the horses. He treated them better than he did himself; he was an inveterate worrier who for years smoked three packs a day. He slept poorly. The doctor tried to scare him straight. He should've spent more time fishing in those placid bluegrass streams. Woody had his own country blues, like B.B. King, and they both ended up with Lucilles.
I often wonder if a Woody 2010 would reschedule work after work until he got a fast track. He trained in mud and slop because "your knowledge of a horse comes from watching him in action." Maybe if Woody had been training these last two decades, we'd have a sturdier horse.
He was born and raised in Kentucky but spent so much of his career working before (and for) New York horseplayers. He was one of us. Harvey Pack called him The Wood Man. He was so ahead of the field as a young trainer that many grumpy, losing gamblers thought he was fixin' or juicin'. He took the accusations hard, a sensitive man. At least the ulcer kept him out of the army.
I know nothing about the training of horses but learned much about character from revisiting Woody's biography, Guess I'm Lucky. Most of all I learned I better spiff my act up. The next time I nail a juicy Pick 4 - no joke - I'm heading straight to Barney's.
Woody Stephens: "I caught on to the idea that you left a better impression on people if you didn't dress so sloppy."