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."
"I cry because I am not less than a man but because I am a man." NFL legend Bruce Smith, from his Hall of Fame speech.
Last night, in the span of a single sentence on Facebook, within a single status update, I was wrong three times. I predicted LeBron James would man up (nine turnovers), beat the Celtics (clang) and remain a Cavalier (luggage in lobby, nice tip for cleaning lady). The third issue is unresolved, but how many times can you slip a quarter into the slot of a broken pay phone?
I need to keep guaranteeing.
Guaranteeing brings a boyish machismo to the story. Guaranteeing promulgates, instigates, aggravates, fascinates. If you want from your heroes a monocled, top-hatted sophistication and etiquette, head for Chantilly. Chantilly even sounds soft. Please don't squeeze the Chantilly. I want a Cajun who speaks from the gut.
Calvin Borel says Super Saver will win the Triple Crown. I've seen his three-fingered vow. What is he supposed to tell the media?
"Well, sir, perhaps the mud moved'em up some in the Doiby, and that other horse he had a nightmare of a trip, and I was the only jockey smart enough to save some ground and stay clear on a hoss who's really good but not a superstar, so maybe we'll get lucky again in the Preakness and Belmont."
Here's my rule on guaranteeing: As long as you don't speak ill of the competition, as long as you keep the blustery assurances to the press about yourself, then you're cool. Sometimes your teammates or bosses won't dig the public certitude, but conferring with them first is just, I don't know, silly.
Can you imagine Moses Malone asking permission from the Sixers' brass before he uttered the legendary "Fo, fo, fo (four, four, four)," predicting sweeps of his three rival playoff teams in 1982. Ultimately, Moses was off by one - fo, fi, fo (four, five, four) - but that headline declaration is a smash to this day.
I loved every single syllable from Rick Dutrow's mouth regarding Big Brown - until he questioned the technique of another man's training. Of course I would forgive The Babe; that was a foregone conclusion. I love his passion, his talent, and his spiritual lineage (4 X 4 to Buddy Delp, a hint of Johnny Campo).
I also have enormous respect and admiration for the quiet and even-keeled brilliance of, say, Barry Sanders and Ramon Dominguez, but sometimes I just prefer my heroes to spike the ball, rather than hand it to the ref.
Larry Bird strutted into the locker room before the inaugural three-point shooting contest, sized up the field and said to them, "Man, who's comin' in second?"
Manly Mark Messier followed up his 1994 guarantee of victory in Game 6 with a hat trick and a Rangers Stanley Cup, their first in half a century. That was Joe Namath territory right there.
Patrick Ewing couldn't make the guarantees work. Millions, billions, read George Bush's lips. Einstein guaranteed nuclear energy wouldn't happen - and then botched his own guarantee with an equation. Big Al was an interesting guy.
Muhammad Ali started this fire, but he was right, he was the greatest. Once again the bravado turned ugly only when he made the comments personal (name-calling) with Joe Frazier. Other than that, Muhammad sold newspapers, he filled seats, and made headlines like no other athlete before or since.
I love Calvin's face. It is now the face of horse racing and we couldn't be luckier. Forget when he wins - did you see the tortured Borel after he got beat aboard Street Sense by Curlin in the Preakness? He returned to the unsaddling area crying - crying - as he spilled his heart to Carl Nafzger. I will never forget that moment. Calvin Borel has replaced Sara Lee. There's nobody who doesn't like him.
Super Saver will not win the Triple Crown, I guarantee it, but I'm all in rooting for Calvin. There have been very few jockeys as worthy of the George Woolf Award. Maybe his guarantees should be spaced a little better, every few years - he's just coming off the Mine that Bird Belmont Prediction. But his popularity among his peers and followers comes for a reason: He is part Cordero, part Dettori, straight up Louisiana, the tastiest of gumbos. You can monitor his heart in his face. Charisma and audacity are also the characteristics of great handicappers.
Here's a heads up to all you fellas out there who sometimes forget the lady who conceived you, weaned you, raised you, glad to, mind you, achoo, bless you, Zyrtec, thank you - where was I - Sunday is Mother's Day.
An enduring and endearing way to honor the woman Norman Bates called "a boy's best friend" might end with chocolate, flowers or even a Continental brunch, but always, always, fellas, start with a card, either tactile and lovely or sent at no charge via website (with low graphic Beyers) as a .tiff, .png, or .gif, and maybe even animated with words you type in and are repeated by the computer in a voice evocative of the "mobile customer you are trying to reach is currently unavailable" lady. There is no mother unworthy of this tribute on such a hallowed occasion. None.
Christina Crawford, sprinter: But I'm tired, Mommie.
Joan Crawford, trainer: Quitter?
Not even her.
For all you Victory Gallops out there who prefer to deliver your cards at the last second, beware in your haste to commit the same mistake I made a few Mother's Days ago, when in sheer panic I darted in and out of a CVS with a no-look sympathy card that read, "Words seem inadequate to express the sadness I feel about the loss and suffering of (in my script) "Dear Ma."
This coming Sunday ABC and TNT will telecast playoffs of the Cavs/Celtics and Spurs/Suns, and every year the NBA makes Mother's Day the dominant motif, with whimsical footage of the superstars at home with their moms. This made me wonder who our greatest Super Sports Moms are, overall, the best hits of the Mrs. After at least three minutes, I concluded the following are the five most impressive athlete producers of my generation.
5. Pam Hale
- She dropped four sons by Rick Barry and every one played in the NBA. They were all, in their primes, bionic jumpers. Wilt Chamberlain once called Rick the greatest athlete he ever saw (basketball, tennis, any sport he tried), but we all know the dam is more important. Scooter, Jon, Brent, Drew. Hall of Famer Barry said, "Their grandfather was Bruce Hale, at one time one of the top five basketball players in the world. And at one time I was one of the top players in the world. On breeding alone, you'd have to figure these guys would be pretty decent." Sports Illustrated
4. Olivia Manning
- The mother of two active Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who have given copiously to charity. St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis renamed its children’s hospital for Peyton. In Mississippi sits The Eli Manning Children’s Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital. A middle brother, Cooper, a star athlete who had his college career cut short by injury, is the funniest of the three and known by most as "the glue who keeps the brothers together." He's always cracking jokes to the media, which earns him major points in this corner. All that Manning testosterone is still tamed by what the neighborhood boys used to call Miss Olivia. "The Mannings stop in sometimes to the same joint where the boys sat in high chairs, and they'll playfully tease one another, mid-meal. But all it takes is one sideways look from mom to make them stop. They put their eyes down." ESPN
3. Nadezhda Ulyanovna
- I-Can't-Pronounce-Her-First-or-Last-Name calls two current heavyweight champions her sons. Vitali is married with three kids. Brother Wladimir is dating a television actress about 20 inches shorter and approximately a fourth his weight, which got me thinking about Chamberlain again. http://erniemunick.com/WiltnShoe.jpg
2. Oracene "Brandy" Price
- She's not only the unflappable, disciplined mother of Venus and Serena, but also of a highly successful lawyer, beauty salon owner and web designer. Oracene divorced (tossed, back-handed, zero love) Richard in 2002.
1. Better Than Honour
- The broodmare of the young millennium has in the last four years produced two Belmont Stakes winners (Jazil, Rags to Riches), a Breeders' Cup victor (Man of Iron) and a three-quarter brother of Rags to Riches (Casino Drive), who in his second career start turned the Grade II Peter Pan into a non-winners-of-one. Jazil is widely known as being as sweet as a puppy. Rags, according to a handler who visited the champion mare at Hill 'n' Dale, can "still be a bitch."
In 2008, Better Than Honour was sold at auction for a record $14 million. What makes her achievements even more sensational is that her famous offspring are by different sires. She is, Better Than Honour, the mother lode of classic stamina winners, her mates just along for the credit. Mama and the Papas.
There'll be no mollifying any of these Queen Mothers, or yours, for that matter, if you forget at the bare minimum a card this Sunday. Otherwise, you'll have my condolences.