A Win Streak More Impressive With Each Passing Year


By Francis LaBelle Jr.


Woody Stephens Wall at Belmont ParkIt remains one of the greatest achievements in sports history, one that may never be duplicated or surpassed.

It was 23 years ago this June when Danzig Connection crossed the finish wire ahead of Johns Treasure to give Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens his record fifth consecutive Belmont Stakes winner. The date was June 7, 1986 and it capped a remarkable string that began with Conquistador Cielo in 1982 and was followed by Caveat, Swale, Crème Fraiche and, finally, Danzig Connection.

Stephens, who died at age 84 in 1998, will always be associated with Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes. His legacy is celebrated in “Woody’s Corner,” located just inside the main Belmont Park Clubhouse entrance, where fans can admire Stephens’s many trophies and the painting depicting Stephens, aboard his pony, Rex, surrounded by his five Belmont winners.

Stephens is also honored yearly on Belmont Stakes day with the running of the Grade 2 Woody Stephens Stakes for three-year-olds at seven furlongs.  2009 will mark the 24th running of the race, formerly called the Riva Ridge. 

That Woodford Cefis Stephens could train a horse to get a mile and a half was no big surprise, but that he could do it five times in a row in the biggest race at North America’s biggest track was. The feat is a tribute not only to Stephens’ horsemanship, but also to his ability to manage his livestock and have the right horse ready at the right time.

Three of his Belmont winners – Conquistador Cielo, Crème Fraiche and Danzig Connection -- caught either sloppy or muddy tracks, and all were aided by such conditions.

Stephens also was a firm believer in speed. He first came to New York in 1944 at the behest of owner/horseplayer Julie Fink, who offered him $1,000 a month to be his trainer. In a 27-month span, the “Speed Boys” won 157 races before a legal battle with The Jockey Club ended the partnership.

But Stephens had learned a valuable lesson.

“When I came to New York with Julie Fink, we were claiming a lot of horses,” Stephens told Daily Racing Form in 1991. “We were using speed all the time, taking horses going short and running them long, and I saw that working. Every place I’ve been since, I’ve had good horses and I never forgot what I learned back then. I love speed and that’s why I loved Conquistador Cielo coming into the Belmont off the Met (Mile).

“A horse with speed doesn’t have to be on the lead. You can use speed anywhere in a race. I used to take horses coming off sprints, run them long and take back with them.”

Stephens also gave his horses top talent in terms of jockeys. Laffit Pincay Jr. rode Conquistador Cielo, Caveat and Swale. Eddie Maple, who was injured and missed the call on Conquistador Cielo, got his Belmont victory for Stephens aboard Crème Fraiche and Chris McCarron rode Danzig Connection.




CONQUISTADOR CIELO (1982)

Conquistador CieloAccording to an article by the late Joe Hirsch, then executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form, the Tuesday after Memorial Day, 1982, Stephens stated that “C.C.” would run back in the Belmont Stakes and win. It was an audacious claim, especially since the horse had already overachieved by winning the Metropolitan Handicap the day before in 1:33. Owner Henryk deKwiatkowski was then approached by a friend not to run back in the Belmont.

When deKwiatkowski told Stephens, the trainer’s response was: “On Saturday, put on your blue suit, get your shoes shined and come on down to the winners’ circle after the Belmont to collect your trophy.”

On the day before the Belmont Stakes, Conquistador Cielo’s regular jockey, Eddie Maple, suffered a broken rib in a spill. Stephens came up with a more-than-capable replacement, Laffit Pincay Jr.

Said Stephens: “He broke from post 11 and I told Laffit (Pincay) he might get too rank, so when he got to the first turn don’t drop him in too quick. I thought he would finally relax, and when did, then bring him over. He dragged Pincay to the lead and just opened up.”

Click here to watch the 1982 Belmont Stakes video replay.




CAVEAT (1983)


Caveat
Won the Derby Trial, and had a horrible trip that cost him the Kentucky Derby.

Said Stephens: “In the Belmont, he was flying along the rail and at the quarter pole, Cordero (on Slew o’Gold), knocked him into the rail. He won the race, but he never ran again. I’ve got a picture on my wall showing Cordero looking right at him at the time. It appeared in one of the local papers. After the race, Cordero came by and said. `Woody, I didn’t do anything.’ I told him, `Look at the picture. You’re looking right at him.”


Click here to watch the 1983 Belmont Stakes video replay.







SWALE (1984)


SwaleConsidered by Stephens to be the best of his Belmont winners, Swale won the Kentucky Derby while Stephens was hospitalized. The trainer, however, cashed a $600 win bet. A too-fast workout probably cost him the Preakness, but Stephens loved the colt’s chances in the Belmont.

Said Stephens: “I had the best three-year-olds in the country, and since Devil’s Bag was all through by that time, Swale was the best and he proved it.  In the Preakness, I wanted him to work a mile in 1:41 for the race, and he went in 1:37. The track was like this floor, and he couldn’t handle it. The Belmont was different. He was able to control the pace and won easily. Then, a week later, he dropped dead here in the yard (behind Barn 3 at Belmont Park), Five doctors performed autopsies on him. One of them thought it was either an aneurism or a heart attack. They found neither. They came and took samples of every bit of feed out of my feeder. They talked to me and everybody that worked for me. I never felt for a minute there was any foul play.”


Click here to watch the 1984 Belmont Stakes video replay.


Phil Gleaves joined Stephens’ barn as an exercise rider in 1977 and within four years, had become assistant trainer. He was there for the first three of Stephens’ Belmont winners and says there is an important aspect of Stephens’ Belmont Stakes preparation that has been vastly overlooked.   

“I think that a big factor, at least in my humble opinion, is that Woody took pride in working out the strategy of how his jockeys would ride their races, particularly in the Belmont Stakes,” said Gleaves, who now trains in South Florida. “I’ll give you a great example. Everyone knew that Conquistador Cielo had won the Met Mile on Monday, May 31st in 1:33 and now was going to go a mile and a half on June 5th. Conquistador Cielo walked for a few days and went to the paddock, but he was not training, per se. Woody worried about how his speed would be controlled for a mile and a half.

“He spoke to Pincay, and he realized that the race started in front of the grandstand. Going into the clubhouse turn, there is a gap where the horses come on and off the track each morning. Woody fathomed and talked a lot about this leading up to the race, that if Conquistador Cielo drew an outside post – he drew post 11 –to take him very wide, as if going to the gap. The idea was that if Conquistador Cielo saw the gap, he might switch off and slow himself down, thinking he was going off the track, just like he does every morning. Pincay took him extremely wide, and then he dropped over. That was Woody’s idea to keep the horse relaxed and his mind off racing. Had he got caught up going into that first turn hustling with horses and going in :22 and :46, he was dead. To me, that was just a brilliant decision by Woody.

“Another critical decision was with Caveat, who was strictly a one-run horse. When he made a middle move, he either got tired and barely hung on or got tired and lost. In the paddock, Woody told Pincay to take back as far as he could go and make one, unhindered run. Woody told him, and I’ll never forget this, that when you think you got him back far enough, take him back again. Now, this was coming from a man who made his reputation with speed horses and two-year-olds, and I’m sure Pincay questioned him in his own mind. But he took him way, way back, 27 lengths at one point, I believe, and then he came flying and won the Belmont.

“Yes, Woody had very good horses. Yes, he had them peaking at the right time. But to me, it has been overlooked that he could dissect a race better than anyone, and I’m sure a lot of that came from his time with Julie Fink. 

“As for Swale, unfortunately, we remember what happened after the race more than the race itself. His Belmont was pretty uneventful. He got to the lead and crushed the rest of the field.”



CRÈME FRAICHE (1985)

Creme FraicheThis salty gelding was entered with stablemate Stephan’s Odyssey, and Stephens felt that the only horse to beat, Chief’s Crown, had no shot of getting a mile and a half. Stephens had planned to run Crème Fraiche in the Ohio Derby, but a forecast of rain for New York and Crème Fraiche’s love of the mud made Stephens run him with Stephan’s Odyssey in the Belmont Stakes.

Said Stephens: “I was sitting with Henryk (owner of Stephan’s Odyssey) and my wife was sitting with Mrs. Moran (Elizabeth Moran, owner of Crème Fraiche). When I told Henryk he was in front, he jumped out of his seat and started hugging me and taking his bows. I’m watching the finish and I told him, `You better go hug Mrs. Moran. She got you.”

Stephens, once again, was right. Crème Fraiche was up to win by a half-length over his stablemate, and it was better than four lengths back to the third-place horse, Chief’s Crown. 

It was also a sweet victory for jockey Eddie Maple, who, because of injury three years earlier, was forced to miss the ride on Conquistador Cielo that started the storied string of victories. 

Click here to watch the 1985 Belmont Stakes video replay.



DANZIG CONNECTION (1986)


Danzig ConnectionAs a two-year-old, Danzig Connection underwent surgery to remove a chip in his knee.

At three, two missed tries with Jerry Bailey up caused Stephens to make a jockey switch to Pat Day, and with orders not to use the whip on Danzig Connection, Day brought him home to victory in the Peter Pan. A prior commitment kept Day off Danzig Connection for the Belmont, but Chris McCarron proved a more than capable replacement.

Said Stephens: “The track was sloppy for the Belmont and Danzig Connection moved with Charlie’s horse (the Charlie Whittingham-trained Ferdinand). He just opened up when they came to him and no one was going to get him if they had gone around again.

“I think this win gave me the most satisfaction because here was a horse with a chip in his knee, and I nominated him to all three Triple Crown races knowing I couldn’t make the Derby or the Preakness.”

Click here to watch the 1986 Belmont Stakes video replay.



David Donk, who was with Stephens as an assistant for the last two of the boss’s five Belmont winners, has vivid memories of those glorious days.

“Crème Fraiche , Danzig Connections were real closers that won the Belmont for Woody, and I guess, Caveat also came from out of it, too,” said Donk, still a successful trainer on the New York circuit. “For me, the Belmont Stakes will always be a great memory. Woody had already won three in a row when I got there.

“Crème Fraiche was a pretty solid horse on his own, and he was a feel good horse. In fact, he was tough to handle because he felt so good all the time.  You really had to be careful and watch him all the time. Of course, the story with him was that Henryk never watched the races; he wanted you to tell him what was going on. When he started hugging everyone, and Woody told him he better hug Betty Moran, that was just priceless.

“Right after Crème Fraiche won, Woody told us, `The next one is over in one of them barns. Go find him.’ One day, a two-year-old got loose from one of the handlers and started off down the road toward Mack Miller’s barn. Woody was standing by his office looked up and said, `That’s my Danzig-Gdynia colt.’ I mean, who knew who it was on sight from several barns away. That colt turned out to be Danzig Connection.

“Woody needed a rider for Danzig Connection because Pat Day was committed to ride Rampage in the Belmont. He waited for Pincay’s agent to call -- the press knew what was going on – but Woody never got the call and Pincay wound up riding Johns Treasure.

“Woody wound up calling Chris McCarron, and Chris said he never had to use his horse until the eighth pole, and then he went on to beat Johns Treasure for his first Classic victory.

“Obviously, I was a lot younger than and to run 1-2 in my first Belmont with Woody was unbelievable. But to follow that with Danzig Connection and Woody’s fifth in a row, that just beyond belief. The fans were going crazy, and they were chanting `Woody!,’ `Woody!’ I will never forget that; I still get goose bumps.

“To most trainers, winning the Kentucky Derby is the big goal. But for me, if I can someday win the Belmont and stand in Woody’s shoes, that would be a lot more meaningful.”