Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
On that gray and rainy June afternoon 25 years ago, there were only a handful of souls seriously considering the possibility of a fifth straight Belmont Stakes victory for 72-year-old trainer Woody Stephens. He already stood alone as the only trainer to saddle four straight winners, having taken the 1985 running with Crème Fraiche; a fifth straight win was pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff. Improbable? Impossible!
But Woody was nothing if not self-confident; in fact, he was downright cocky.
Danzig Connection may have been coming off a so-so victory in the Peter Pan – the 57th edition of which will be run Saturday – but Stephens said he felt he had the best-looking (and best-trained) horse in the field. The sloppy track didn’t bother Stephens; neither did the 1 ½ miles. “I’ve always felt good horses can run on anything, anywhere, at any distance,” he once said. Nor was he concerned with the imposing presence of the Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, ridden by 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker and trained by 73-year-old Charlie Whittingham. “These old guys are coming in here to beat me,” he cackled. “But once you cross the Hudson, those buildings get awfully tall.” Danzig Connection’s jockey, Chris McCarron, who had never ridden for the man before, recalled Stephens coming down to the jocks room during the sixth race to go over some strategy: “He just exuded confidence,” said McCarron.
Those who sent Danzig Connection off at 8-1 may or may not have been impressed by his victory in the Peter Pan, a race which had produced a half-dozen Belmont winners, the most recent of which was Coastal (1979), but at least some of them were backing the trainer, not the horse.
When the gates opened, McCarron sat still as a stone aboard Danzig Connection as he tracked Mogambo through moderate fractions of :23 1/5, :47 4/5 and 1:12 4/5, moving up to engage the front-runner as the mile went in 1:38 1/5. Turning for home, with the pacesetter spent and Ferdinand and John’s Treasure looming on the outside, it looked like anyone’s horse race. But McCarron, and Stephens, knew differently. “I never had to ask him to run until past the eighth pole,” said McCarron. With Stephens screaming, “Go on with him, Chris! Go on with him, Chris!” from the box seats alongside owner Henry DeKiatkowski, Danzig Connection spurted clear of his rivals and onto his improbable 1 ¼-length victory. The fact it was McCarron’s first in a Triple Crown race dwindled and was swept aside in the outpouring of affection for Stephens, who grinned and waved as there, in the rain, the fans stood and chanted “Woody … Woody … Woody … Woody … Woody!” knowing full well they had witnessed an achievement that will likely never be repeated.