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By Bill Nack
Woody Stephens defied the odds with Conquistador Cielo, the first of his five straight Belmont winners
Woody Stephens had been training horses for 41 years, since the days when he was bringing Our Boots to Kentucky to meet Whirlaway in the Kentucky Derby, but he had never experienced anything like this---not in all the days he had trained horses for the Capt. Harry Guggenheim’s Cain Hoy Stables, nor in all the years that he was known as one of the Speed Boys, training horses and betting on them with the noted New York speed-handicapper and owner, Jule Fink.
No, Woody had never saddled one quite like this. So there he was, on this late Memorial Day afternoon of May 31, 1982, standing in the winner’s circle at Belmont Park and staring off at a tote board whose lights were flashing their electrifying message about 3-year-old Conquistador Cielo’s 7 ¼-length victory over older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap: :22 4/5, :45, 1:09 and 1:33 flat. The son of Mr. Prospector---who had missed all the winter prep races, not to mention the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, while Woody nursed him through a saucer fracture that had plagued him all winter---had just set nearly all the pace and run the fastest eight furlongs in the 77-year history of Belmont Park.
“Did you see that?” Woody said. “Awesome!”
At once, the energized fans gathered around the charmed circle, leaning over the fence and yelling at the trainer, urging him to take a shot and run him back in the Belmont Stakes just five days later.
“Are you gonna run him in the Belmont?” one shouted.
“Come on, Woody, the Belmont!” cried another.
The man hesitated, listened to the crowds beseeching him, finally shook the fedora on his head. “I’m against it,” Woody said.
Woodford Cefis Stephens was 68 years old that spring. He had been training horses since 1936, and had won just about every major race in New York since he left his native Kentucky and headed to Gotham in 1944. He had won the Preakness Stakes with Blue Man in 1952, and 22 years later, in 1974, he had won the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby with Cannonade.
All he really had left to do, as he saw it in those far-off days, was win the Belmont Stakes. “Put the icing on my cake,” Woody used to say.
He resisted the idea for 24 hours, despite the urging of Conquistador Cielo’s owner, aviation executive Henryk deKwiatkowski, to give the colt a chance.
“Is there a possibility he can run again?” Henryk asked him at the barn, just hours after the Met.
“You mean the Belmont?” Woody said. “Let me think about it.”
Stephens double-checked the colt’s pedigree. As a Mr. Prospector, out of a Bold Commander mare, he had a miler’s pedigree: nothing added up to 12 furlongs.
Despite his reservations, though, he gradually began to change his mind. Perhaps, if the colt got the lead, the jock could sit still and get him to relax. A natural miler can run all day on an easy lead. He knew he had the speed, and he knew from his days as a Speed Boy that the lead was usually the place to be. “Speed puts you in the catbird seat,” he said.
At bottom, to be sure, something else was going on. He desperately wanted to win the Belmont, and the gambler in the man was whispering for him to go. He had been a gambler all his life, since he was a young jock and trainer John S. Ward put him on a filly named Directly---on Jan. 15, 1931 at Hialeah Park---back when Woody was just a scrawny, 85-pound stable boy of 17. On his way out of the jock’s room, he slipped his valet, Dick Meade, his last $20 and told Dick to bet it on Directly’s nose. She won by a whisker, and a chesty Woody, on the muscle, went back to the barn that night with $377 in his pocket.
Stable foreman Booty Taylor greeted him with a sneer: “Now get out there and rake that walking ring.”
“But I’m a jockey now!” said Woody.
Booty wheeled on him: “You might be a jock in Mr. Ward’s book, but you’re still a punk in mine!”
So the impulse to gamble, to take a chance, had been in the marrow of Woody’s bones since he was a boy, and it grew only stronger as time went on. Tuesday, he decided the colt would run the Belmont. It was a gamble, sure, but he liked the odds and loved his horse.
For which he trotted out another aphorism: “If you want to be a big flea, you got to ride a big dog.”
And Conquistador Cielo, off that scorching Met, was suddenly the biggest dog in Gotham. And Woody was its biggest flea.
Over the next few days, though, the man was endlessly second-guessed. His wife, Lucille, kept asking him, “Are you sure he can go a mile and a half?” On the eve of the Belmont, he asked Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock, “You think this horse has a chance?”
“No,” Seth told him. “I don’t think he wants to run that far. I think he’ll be last.”
Even the sage handicappers on Belmont Day sent him off as second choice, at 4-1. With regular rider Eddie Maple injured, Laffit Pincay flew in from the coast, and Woody told him, “Sit real still with him. Make him relax.”
That was all that Pincay needed to know. In the very end, Pincay’s chilly ride made the colt’s Belmont performance all the more stunning---a breath-taking tour de force that remains today, on the grainy films of memory, among the most commanding Triple Crown performances in modern history. Charging from the gate in the mud, the colt opened daylight on the field, repulsed High Ascent’s feeble challenge on the last turn, and fairly smothered them all with his speed, sweeping into the stretch in front by five, widening his lead to ten at the eighth-pole, and winning in a gallop by 14.
Woody and Henryk fairly danced into the winner’s circle. “I’m the speed; I’m in the catbird seat!” Woody said in his Blue Grass twang. “Last Monday he went a mile in 1:33! Today he won at a mile and a half! This is the best colt in America. He might end up Horse of the Year. The fu’ther he went, the fu’ther he went!”
Indeed, Conquistador Cielo ended up America’s Horse of the Year, and that Belmont victory was the centerpiece of his brief but brilliant career. For Stephens, of course, it was only the beginning of the most extraordinary runs in training
history. He won the next four runnings of the Belmont, too, with Caveat, Swale, Crème Fraiche, and Danzig Connection.
Let history forever note: the fu’ther Woody went, the fu’ther Woody went.
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