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.