I had the privilege to be in both concentration camps of the Germans and Russians," said Henryk deKwiatkowski, whose flame-blue eyes were lamps of celebration lighting a dusky day when his horse, Conquistador Cielo, won the Belmont Stakes.
"The privilege is, I survived to be here." At age 14, taken from his village in Poland by Russian soldiers who rounded up everyone present, deKwiatkowski was carried to Siberia. The sentence, he said, was 50 years hard labor.
"So today," he said, his joy tangible, his smile never ending, "it is true that I owe the Russians time." He loved the moment. He had escaped the death camps 40 years ago . . . he flew fighter planes for a Polish squadron in the Royal Air Force . . . he came to Canada in 1952 and America in '57 . . . and today, a multimillionaire in aviation, Henryk deKwiatkowski had one more laugh at his Siberian jailers.
"They must be going through their files," he said.
Such a nice story, today's Belmont. DeKwiatkowski's trainer is Woodford Cefis Stephens, 69, who had won all the big races for 45 years--except the Belmont. His Cannonade won the 100th Kentucky Derby, a nice touch for the ol' hardboot from a tiny Kentucky town, and now Woody has won the mile-and-a-half race that properly calls itself the test of champions.
"I think he's the best 3-year-old in America," Stephens said. No one will challenge that after Conquistador Cielo's work this week. Not only did the colt win the Metropolitan Handicap at a mile Monday (for its fourth straight victory), here it came with four days rest to run everyone into Belmont's mud.
"The farther they went, the farther he pulled off," Stephens said, adding in his country-boy manner, "They used his rear end for a lookin' glass."
You don't win classics with mules, for sure, but Stephens gets a nod here for handling his good runner perfectly. He might have rushed Conquistador Cielo back to the wars in March after a winter's rest with a small fracture in the shin. Stephens waited, passing up the Derby and Preakness, all the while treating his charge tenderly.
He used a battery, too. Not the illegal kind, carried by the rider for those emergencies when the stiff goes slow. Stephens wrapped a $2,000 gadget, electric powered, around the leg to stimulate circulation.
"We probably didn't need it after a while," Stephens said of the electrolysis, "but Conquistador got used to it, so we kept doing it."
It was a big day for a distinguished jockey, too, with Laffit Pincay finally winning one of the classics.
Zip for 16 in previous Triple Crown races, Pincay kept Conquistador Cielo out of trouble early and won rolling downhill. The margin of victory: 14 1/2 lengths over Derby winner Gato del Sol, 22 1/4 lengths over Linkage (whom the smarties figured to win) and 45 lengths over Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler.
The time, 2:28. 1/5 through the slop, is as fast as anybody has run the Belmont since Secretariat's supranatural 2:24 in 1973.
Pincay was Stephens' first choice when Conquistador Cielo's regular rider, Eddie Maple, was injured in a spill Friday.
"After the fourth race Friday at Hollywood Park," Pincay said, "my agent said, 'You're going to New York tonight.' "
Pincay arrived here at 10 o'clock this morning. He didn't ride early on today's card, napping while others worked in the rain.
If drowsy with jet lag, if stiff from sitting around with no rides, you'd never have known it from Pincay's work. Breaking from outside in an 11-horse field, Pincay kept Conquistador Cielo in mid-track, away from horses that might spook him.
"I took him out so he couldn't see the other horses," Pincay said. "He was relaxed all the way. When he was running relaxed on the back stretch, I knew we would win."
Henryk deKwiatkowski is a handsome man with strong features framed by wisps of gray at the temples. He wore a diplomat's pin-striped suit today. No sir, they'd never know him back in Siberia. He made a fortune in America with an aviation company he started by putting down $240,000 to buy $24 million worth of DC-6s.
Since the Canadian tycoon/horseman E.P. Taylor "told me racing is not the losing proposition everyone says," deKwiatkowski has spent maybe $10 million the last five years buying horses ($155,000 for Conquistador as a yearling).
"There is the parable of the seed and the soil," he said, explaining how he became wealthy. "The fruitful growth of corn depends not only on the seed, but also the soil. The soil in the United States is very good."
Now he owns 30 race horses.
He named his Belmont winner for an exclusive club of American aviation executives that numbers 100 and meets in Wyoming. "I am the only Polish member of Conquistador del Cielo, Conquerors of the Sky," he said. "It is one of the greatest gatherings of men in the world. I am thrilled to be a member . . . When I first saw this horse, it looked to me like a conqueror. So. I hope the club doesn't mind me saying these kind of things. I am so excited."
One thing more. After Arthur Hancock's horse, Gato del Sol, won the Derby, deKwiatkowski heard a record album Hancock made. He took it to Radio Free Europe. Soon enough the poor people of Poland--"The Russians are doing the same thing now they did when I was a child"--heard a song called "A Horse of a Different Color."
"The Polish people like such music," deKwiatkowski said, "because to them it represents freedom."