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.
As I write this, the countdown clock on this website tells me there are 44 days, 3 hours and 12 minutes until the horses load into the gate for the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes. It doesn’t seem like such a long time, but when you think that just 45 days ago Belmont Park looked like this …
.. you know a lot can happen. Last year at this time, Drosselmeyer was a relative unknown, boasting one maiden win, one allowance win, and a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, his only stakes start. Two years ago in April, Summer Bird had only a maiden win on his resume, as did Da’ Tara the previous year. And in late April of 2007, who would have thought a filly would set the “Test of the Champion” on its ear?
According to pundits, this year’s Kentucky Derby picture is as murky as it gets. With one hopeful after another stepping off the Derby trail, it seems to be anyone’s race and talk of a Triple Crown seems very premature, if not downright outlandish.
But this year, like every year, as racing returns to Belmont Park after another hard winter, we hope. Someone will win the Derby, and we hope it will be a horse good enough to win the Preakness, and we hope against hope there will be a horse great enough to join the ranks of Whirlaway and Seattle Slew and Gallant Fox and the eight others who swept the series.
Two days before the meet begins, the paddock at Belmont Park is empty save for the newly planted flowers and the great bronze statue of Secretariat. Thirty-eight years ago, Big Red broke a 25-year Triple Crown drought; today, that drought stretches back 33 years to Affirmed. But even as the workmen hustle to ready this great arena for opening day, Secretariat’s statue gleams anew under a warm spring sun, the rigors of the winter buffed away as he stands silently, a reminder of the glory that awaits the next champion.
There is only one Belmont Stakes. And there is only one Nick Zito. And they go together like, well, pizza and New York. As Zito himself said when asked why he wanted Super Saver to win the Preakness: “Well, No. 1, Todd is from Dallas and I don’t think he knows much about pizza.”
Or, as he put it another way: “New York is America.”
Those who were around for trainer Woody Stephens’ five straight Belmont victories may find it a bit presumptuous to call Zito “Mr. Belmont,” even though he’s twice won the “Test of the Champion” and has saddled more Belmont starters than any other trainer in history (22 not including tomorrow).
Not me. When Zito leads Ice Box and Fly Down over for tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes, I bet there will be as many people rooting for the Brooklyn-born Zito as there will be for his two wonderful horses. Sure, there’s another white-haired Hall of Fame trainer in the race, but it’s Zito who belongs to Belmont Park, to New York.
It would be only fitting were he, the quintessential New York trainer, to win the quintessential New York race.
Right or wrong?
OK, I admit it. I’m a sucker for really tall horses. You know, the ones that look like they could play center for the Knicks, who could use one. Actually, the Knicks need a lot more than a center, but that’s another blog.
Maybe it started with Forego, I don’t remember, but now, whenever I see one of those 17-hands-plus monsters, my eyes glaze over and all reason flies out the window. Long Trek, Point Given, Midnight Lute, Zenyatta, Timber Reserve, they all make the Tall Hall of Fame.
Which brings us to the latest addition: Belmont Stakes hopeful First Dude.
I was prepared not to like First Dude, who is out of the mare Run Sarah Run and named after Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd, the former First Dude of Alaska. Therein lies reason enough to root against him, at least for me, but one look at First Dude dragging his diminutive exercise rider, Tammy Fox, around the grazing area, and he moved right to the top of the list.
What sealed the deal was his personality. For a horse who bears a striking resemblance to a brontosaurus, he has a completely endearing way about him, as evidenced by the no less than 15 times he stopped on his way to the track this morning to strike a pose for all the photographers and videographers who were trailing along in his wake.
“He’s a ham,” explained Fox.
Yeah – a big one.