Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
On Belmont day 2006, the name of one New York Hall of Famer and racing legend was swapped out for another, when the Riva Ridge Stakes became the Woody Stephens.
Stephens’ legacy is cemented in his long list of accomplishments, among them the 11 champions he trained, the Eclipse he won as the nation’s top trainer in 1983, the dozens of Grade 1 races he won, and of course, the five consecutive Belmont Stakes he won from 1982 to 1986. Celebrating the Belmont means celebrating Stephens, and on Belmont day 2006, June 10, the first edition of the Woody Stephens was run. It won by Songster, trained by Tom Albertrani, owned by Darley Stable, ridden by Edgar Prado.
Stephens’ legacy is memorialized in the name of the race, and in “Woody’s Corner,” just inside the clubhouse entrance to Belmont Park, and in his Hall of Fame plaque in Saratoga. More vibrantly, that legacy lingers on backstretches and press boxes, in the people Stephens influenced.
Phil Gleaves worked for Stephens from late 1977 until February 1985 and the first three Belmont victories. Win #1 was Conquistador Cielo.
“That first one was surreal,” said Gleaves, “because Conquistador had just won the Met Mile five days prior. People tried to dissuade Woody from running in the Belmont back on five days’ rest.
“He would have none of it. He said, ‘I want to run the horse and the horse will win.’ It was a surreal experience for me, being around a person with that much confidence with so much on the line, namely that Conquistador Cielo had been syndicated for huge amounts of money, and he stood to really devalue himself if he had not run well in the Belmont.”
Two years later, the big horse expected to take Stephens through the Triple Crown was Devil’s Bag, the undefeated 2-year-old champion. Devil’s Bag didn’t make it to the Kentucky Derby, but Swale did, winning it by 3 1/4 lengths, and on June 9, 1984, Swale brought Stephens his third straight Belmont win, to chants of “Woody, Woody,” as the trainer stood with the horse in the winner’s circle.
“Again, it was surreal,” said Gleaves. “I’d never experienced that kind of adulation from fans, especially New York fans. You know how tough they can be.”
Eight months later, Gleaves left Stephens to go out on his own, and David Donk stepped in as the barn’s assistant trainer.
“Working for Woody is the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said Donk this spring at his Belmont barn. “I went to one of the best universities in the world, the Woody Stephens University.”
Donk was there for Belmont win #4, when the barn ran 1-2 with Crème Fraiche and Stephan’s Odyssey, in a race so close that Stephan’s Odyssey’s owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, thought he won it.
“He got up and he was hugging Woody and he thought he won the Belmont,” Donk remembered. “Woody said, ‘You better go hug Betty Moran because she just beat you.’”
The “Woody, Woody” chants once again accompanied Stephens to the winner’s circle, making a heck of an impression on a young assistant trainer.
“I just remember the euphoria,” said Donk. “It was phenomenal. I had goose bumps. I always do when I think about it.”
Both Donk and Gleaves went on their own after working for Stephens, developing their own successful stables and winning their own Grade 1 races; each has a hard time pinning down just one way in which their mentor influenced them.
“Multiple times during the day, I think of things he said or did,” Donk said. Concurred Gleaves, “It’s pretty hard to pick just one.”
Gleaves settled on Stephens’ handicapping skills, saying that he tries to emulate the way the trainer could exactly envision the way a race would be run. “He could read a race without speaking to any of the other trainers,” he said. “He knew exactly what his fellow trainers were going to do.”
Donk remembers the way Stephens treated the media. “He was always mobbed, but he loved it, and I learned by watching him. No matter who you were, he made himself available.
“I think about how important it is to be accessible to the media, and it’s a big knock in our sport that we aren’t.”
On a rainy morning the day before a Belmont that promises to be muddy, Allen Jerkens remembered that Stephens never shied from training over an off–track. “’You never know,’ he’d say,” recalled the Chief, “’when they’re going to have to run in the mud.’”
And indeed, Conquistador Cielo’s first race over a sloppy track was the Belmont, which mattered little to the man who trained him.
Recalled Gleaves, “Woody said, ‘We’re going to be the only speed in the race and it’s going to be muddy, and he will win.’”
Click here to view all five of Woody Stephens’ Belmont wins.
Tomorrow at Belmont Park, graded stakes step aside to make way for a day of New York-bred racing. Seven stakes races offering combined purses of $850,000 will be headlined by the first running of the $150,000 Commentator, named in honor of the New York-bred who won the Whitney Handicap in 2005 and 2008.
In 2003, Funny Cide did his home state proud when he became the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, going on to win the Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont Stakes. He got his start in New York-bred stakes races at Belmont, winning the Bertram F. Bongard and Sleepy Hollow Stakes in the fall of 2002 before jumping to open company in the Holy Bull that winter.
Had Funny Cide prevailed in the Belmont Stakes, he would have been the first New York-bred Triple Crown winner…but not the first state-bred winner of the Belmont.
That distinction goes to the filly Ruthless, the very first winner of the Belmont Stakes, in 1867, when the race was held at Jerome Park. By Eclipse and out of Barbarity, she was one of the “Barbarous Battalion” of five full sisters—the others were Relentless, Remorseless, Regardless, and Merciless—bred and owned by Francis Morris.
At two, Ruthless won the Nursery and Saratoga Stakes; at three, she took both of New York’s premier races when she won the Belmont and the Travers, setting a new stakes record in the latter.
Both Ruthless and her jockey, Gilbert W. Patrick, called “Gilpatrick” in contemporary accounts, were elected to the Hall of Fame: she in 1975, he in 1970.
The second New York-bred Belmont winner was owned and bred by the man for whom the race is named: August Belmont. In 1969, Belmont had two entrants in his eponymous race, Glenelg, whom Belmont had purchased in utero, and his homebred Fenian. The horses finished one-two, but the New York Times was suspicious, noting in the chart that Glenelg “might have won had he been wanted.”
Turf historian William H.P. Robertson, in The History of Thoroughbred Racing, wrote in the 1960’s that “…Glenelg…was considerably better than the winner, but Belmont had bred Fenian and preferred to win with him, so, as [turf historian Walter] Vosburgh wrote, ‘Glenelg’s jockey almost had to pull his head off to let Fenian finish first.’”
Fenian was trained by Jacob Pincus, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988.
The third, and last, New York-bred to win the Belmont Stakes was another Belmont-bred, though Belmont didn’t race him. Forester took on only two competitors in 1882, winning easily by five lengths. He was ridden by jockey James McLaughlin; the win was the first of McLaughlin’s six in the race, tied with Eddie Arcaro for most all-time. McLaughlin entered the Hall of Fame in its inaugural 1955 class.
All the New York-bred Belmont winners are a part of racing history; each brought a member of the team to the Hall of Fame. Fenian may have been the least accomplished, and perhaps the least deserving, winner; he may also be the one who left the greatest legacy.
For it is Fenian who stands atop the August Belmont Memorial Cup, given to the winner of the Belmont Stakes. The trophy was first presented to August Belmont I when Fenian won in 1869; owners of Belmont winners also get a miniature of the trophy, as do the winning trainer and jockey.
The only New York-bred listed as possible for this year’s Belmont Stakes is Giant Finish, sure to be a longshot after his 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. If he and his connections aren’t presented with the August Belmont Memorial Cup, it will be Ruthless, Forester, and most of all Fenian, as holders of the New York-bred legacy in the Belmont Stakes.
For more on the history of the August Belmont Memorial Cup, click here.
“’We bid you welcome to our cabin by the sea.’”
With these words, the Coney Island Jockey Club announced its existence in September, 1879. Headed by Leonard Jerome, the club was formed to build a new racetrack in Brooklyn; “the sea” was Sheepshead Bay, in the southwest corner of the borough, and the racetrack that took its name opened in June, 1880.
The track took full advantage of its shorefront location, building, according to an 1880 article in the New York Times, a clubhouse that afforded a “full and commanding view of the ocean, [with] a broad piazza extending along the ocean front of the building.” Ferries transported customers from the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and from a dock at East 23rd Street directly to the entrance of the track.
On opening day, June 19, 1880, praise for the track’s convenience and appearance were unequivocal, the grandstand said to be “without equal” in the country. The racing was pretty good, too: five races were held on that first card, two stakes and a steeplechase.
View of the Sheepshead Bay Course
© Library of Congress Popular Graphic Arts Collection
The names of the two stakes, the Tidal and the Foam, invoked the track’s location, and the stature of the winners indicated the quality of the racing. For three-year-old colts, the Tidal was won by Luke Blackburn, whose Brooklyn connections went deep; he was owned by Brooklyn’s own Dwyer brothers, and both his trainer, James Rowe, and his jockey, James McLaughlin, also lived in Brooklyn. In fact, all three lived on a block in Park Slope known as Sportsmen’s Row.
Luke Blackburn’s victory, wrote the Times, “was a very popular one, especially with the Brooklyn people, many of whom shouted excitedly as he came up the stretch in the lead.” The horse would win 22 of 24 races that year; decades later, Rowe and McLaughlin would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Between them, the two men won eight Belmont Stakes as jockeys: Rowe in 1872 and 1873, and McLaughlin set the record with six wins between 1882 and 1888. Eddie Arcaro tied that record in 1955.
The Foam Stakes for two-year-olds was won by Spinaway, owned by George Lorillard, and according to William H.P. Robertson, she won seven of nine races and was the champion juvenile filly of her year. Her legacy lives on in the stakes race that’s been run at Saratoga since 1881, the year after she made her debut.
That first Sheepshead Bay meeting ended on June 26. In the 80 races that were run, Lorillard was the leading owner by money earned, with the Dwyer brothers second. Spinaway’s jockey Hughes (no first name given) took the jockey title, followed by McLaughlin.
But it was more than a striking environment and good racing that put Sheepshead Bay on the sporting map: in 1886, the track introduced turf racing to the United States. The steeplechase course was eliminated to make room for a one-mile turf course, and among the races run over it that year was the fittingly, if not originally, named Green Grass Stakes, won by Dry Monopole.
Given the current popularity of turf racing and its historical significance overseas, the reaction of the Times writer at the end of that Sheepshead Bay meeting may come as something of a surprise:
The grass track at Sheepshead Bay has been a failure…Training horses on a dirt track and running them on turf could not have been expected to succeed and was not popular as a novelty. In a couple of years…the attempt may be made to convince American horsemen not afflicted with Anglomania that it can be used with safety, but the Jockey Club will be obliged to make “moors and downs” to train upon in the meantime.” (“Turf Notes”)
He may have had a point, but he didn’t get it exactly right: 127 years later, the turf racing at Sheepshead Bay is commemorated in a stakes race—on the grass, of course—at Belmont Park, the track to which some of the Coney Island Jockey Club’s most prominent fixtures, the Futurity and the Suburban, were moved after the demise of the pretty, and prestigious, “cabin by the sea” at Sheepshead Bay.
1886 Sheepshead Bay Program
© Coney Island Jockey Club
Consulted and quoted
Coney Island Jockey Club program, Coney Island Jockey Club Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.
“Good Racing Near The Sea,” New York Times, June 20, 1880.
“Hark, ‘Tis The Troubadour,” New York Times, June 11, 1886.
“Miscellaneous City News,” New York Times, June 19, 1880.
“Racing at the Sea-Shore,” New York Times, June 27, 1880.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
“The Coney Island Jockey Club: An Organization Which Was Needed On Long Island,” New York Times, September 5, 1879.
“The Coney Island Jockey Club: The New Race-Course And Its New Club-House,” New York Times, March 28, 1880.
“The Futurity at Sheepshead Bay, Sept. 03, 1888, value $50,000 won by Proctor Knott.” Library of Congress, Popular Graphic Arts Collection, LC-DIG-pga-00720
“Turf Notes,” New York Times, June 28, 1886.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and Shug McGaughey sits placidly in a chair in the shedrow of barn 20. Intent on his Blackberry, he seems pleasantly oblivious: to approaching visitors; to an impending storm making itself known in stirring winds and scudding clouds; to a tempest of another kind, one created by the media as he gets ready to take a shot at the Preakness and at making racing history.
When he finally looks up, he is, perhaps surprisingly after the last week, affably inclined to talk, even when the name of That Other Derby Horse is brought up.
“I was looking forward to going to Pimlico with Easy Goer,” he says, “because we didn’t have any comparison. Was Sunday Silence that much better, or did we just not run our race?”
Like Orb, Easy Goer was favored in his Kentucky Derby, in 1989. McGaughey is not alone in having run two Kentucky Derby favorites: at least 16 trainers have done it. His 50% win percentage with Derby favorites, though, is surpassed by only one man: Henry Forrest, whose only two Derby starters, Kauai King in 1966 and Forward Pass in 1968, were both favored and both won (the latter via disqualification). Each would also win the Preakness, a race Easy Goer lost Preakness by an agonizing nose.
“I was disappointed,” McGaughey acknowledges philosophically. “But I knew we were in the ballgame.
“Then we got back up here, and everything went right for us. I figured that he liked this big old race track better.”
Eight lengths better, apparently, as Easy Goer came home to Belmont and crushed the Triple Crown dreams of his nemesis Sunday Silence, though McGaughey says that’s not what he was thinking about.
“That never came into my thought process,” he maintains, his voice stubbornly Kentucky even after decades in New York . “Never did I want to keep someone from winning the Triple Crown. I was trying to win the Belmont, for Mr. Phipps, probably, more than myself.”
“Mr. Phipps” is Ogden Phipps, father of the Ogden Phipps that co-owns and co-bred Orb, and his name leads to a tangle of memories.
“Mr. Phipps absolutely loved this,” McGaughey says, leaning on the rail that crosses the barn door, gesturing to the shedrow. “He loved his horses.”
In full-fledged reminiscence mode, McGaughey goes on. “A month before he died [at age 93, in 2002], he called me and said, ‘I hear you’re going to work the two-year-olds.’ We were at Palm Beach Downs, and I said, ‘That’s right, Mr. Phipps.’ He said, ‘What day?’ I said, ‘What day do you want to come?’”
McGaughey pauses, clears his throat.
“I wasn’t going to work the two-year-olds,” he says, still with the air of confiding a secret, more than a decade later.
“It was March,” he drawls, emphasizing the month, pausing for a laugh he knows is sure to come. “So I called Dinny [Phipps’ son] and I said, ‘Listen, he’s going to think they’re working, but they’re not.’ At that time, he wouldn’t have known the difference.”
Mr. Phipps came and he watched the horses, sitting on the bleachers at Palm Beach Downs, at the barn afterward eating a sandwich and drinking “some kind of liqueur.” “I don’t know what the hell it was,” McGaughey says.
“And then we’d get the horses out so that he could see them. That’s what he really liked: he liked the young ones, because that was kind of the dream: Is one of these going to be a real good one?”
Standing halfway down the shedrow, McGaughey recalls his first day at barn 20. “They brought me out of Kentucky,” he says. “I was standing down at the end of the barn, and I saw Mr. Phipps come in right here. That might be the longest walk I ever made in my life.”
When Easy Goer was a yearling, he and Mr. Phipps went to Kentucky to see the Alydar colt. “He was out of Relaxing, so that was a pretty big deal to him,” he remembers--Relaxing, who won the Firenze and the Gallant Fox and the Assault and the Delaware Handicap, and who was third, beaten less than a length, to John Henry in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“We were on the plane coming back, and he said, ‘I guess the Relaxing’s the best one,’ McGaughey goes on. “What was I going to say, no? ‘I don’t think so’? I said, ‘I guess so.’
“He would have gotten a huge thrill out of last Saturday, but he would have gotten a huge thrill out of it for me…for us. Really and truly, that’s the kind of guy he was.”
In the immediate aftermath of winning the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey said several times that he wished he’d won the Derby when he was younger so that he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. With a week to reflect, he’s reconsidered.
“I don’t know if that’s exactly true,” he admits. “I think I probably have more appreciation for it now than I would have in 1989. I just think after wanting to do something for so long that I appreciate it a lot more now. People have been able to kind of look and watch me over the years, and maybe they’ve got a little more appreciation, too, of the time we’ve put in, not only with the horses that are here now but for however long I’ve been doing this.”
The sound of a rake in the shedrow methodically, meticulously underscores his words, the literal and symbolic accompaniment to his paeans to the people who work with him as he reels off the names of half a dozen people who were with when he had Easy Goer and who still work with him now, among them Easy Goer’s groom, Victor…. who is now one of the barn’s night watchmen.
“That’s made the whole journey that much more enjoyable to me: to watch it and watch the people appreciate it. The morale around here is pretty high,” he says, in what may be the understatement of the week.
Slipping easily between memories that go back a quarter century and those that go back a week, he smiles as he thinks about 1989.
“To go to the Derby with the Derby favorite…it was kind of cool, you know?” he asks rhetorically. “Going this year, it was pretty cool, too, you know, but I had a whole different perspective on it than I had when I went down there the last time.
“After the Florida Derby, I told the people around me, ‘We’re going to go there and have fun. I was excited. With Easy Goer, I was probably a lot more uptight. I was younger and I probably thought I was a little sharper than I really was.”
The wind has picked up, and the cell phones start to quiver with storm alerts. Clouds looming, the sky darkening, McGaughey steps back toward the tranquility of his shedrow.
“It’s been a remarkable journey for me, from where I started to where I’m standing today,” he observes. “I’m hugely appreciative. I was thinking about that driving back here today, how lucky I was in 1986 when I got the call--not to be around these kind of horses, but to be around these kind of people.”