Even before he trained Conquistador Cielo, Woody Stephens had established himself as one of the giants of his profession. He was the second-leading trainer of stakes winners in history. He had been enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame. He had earned the respect and fondness of almost everyone in the sport.
If his career was lacking anything, it was the single archetypal achievement for which he could be remembered, the one great horse with whom he would always be associated. Now he has that: he will be forever known as the man who took a horse who was lame in March and made him worth $36.4 million in August. This feat, however, only typified the kind of work that has brought Stephens four decades of consistent success.
It seems that Woodford Cefis Stephens has been training a barnful of well-bred horses forever. In fact, he has been working professionally with thoroughbreds since he was a 14-year-old in 1929, when he left his father's tobacco farm in Midway, Ky., to embark on a career as a jockey. After he learned that this was not his true calling, Stephens got his trainer's license in 1940, established his base of operations in New York in 1944, won his first stake in 1945 and has been winning them ever since.
He handles his horses, especially the young ones, in a way that seems quite in keeping with his own relaxed personality. Stephens never rushes his horses, never asks them to perform too much too soon. Often, his 2-year-olds will run several times and strike everybody else as being rather undistinguished--and then suddenly blossom into productive stakes horses.
Stephens will wait as long as he has to; he waited more than a year for the maturation of what was perhaps his best horse until now. "Bald Eagle had been a disappointment in England," he recalled, "and when he came to this country he wasn't happy with the world. It took a year to get him okay. But when we finally got him to do things the right way, he was a racehorse." At the age of 5, Bald Eagle was voted the country's champion handicap horse.
In the hands of a less skilled, less patient man, Conquistador Cielo surely would not now be the country's preeminent racehorse and the heavy favorite for Saturday's Travers Stakes. The colt had suffered a small fracture in his left leg during a brief 2-year-old campaign, and Stephens rested him until he went to Florida this winter. There, he said, "We thought he had healed, but when we put him in training he'd take a bad little step every once in a while. After he won a race, he was sore the next day. If I'd crowded him then, I might have destroyed him. Fortunately, the man (owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski) was patient enough, and I kept telling him, 'Someday, he'll be ready.' "
So Stephens kept working on Conquistador Cielo, using some time-honored techniques -- standing him in ice, applying a poultice -- as well as a new-fangled one, a device called a Bio-Ostegeon machine that passes an electric current through the injured area. Finally, this spring, Conquistador Cielo was ready to run. And when he was, Stephens showed another aspect of his talent. He knows how to reap the rewards of his patience; he knows how to get the money.
Other old-school trainers who share Stephens' fundamental conservative nature don't know how to be bold when the situation demands. But Woody is a tight-fisted old poker player who knows just the moment to shove all his chips into the pot.
And that, of course, is what he did after Conquistador Cielo won the Metropolitan Handicap and shattered Belmont Park's track record for a mile. Almost everybody (especially the pedigree experts) looked skeptically on his decision to run in the Belmont Stakes five days later, but Stephens maintained, "I thought he'd win for sure. I knew I had the fittest and sharpest horse that afternoon."
The decision to run was the most important decision of the trainer's career, for it was Conquistador Cielo's 15-length victory that brought about his record-priced syndication. Stephens was given two shares, worth $1.8 million, for his efforts.
From now through the fall, he will have the nerve-racking job of caring for the world's most expensive horse, of knowing that one mistake or one defeat could deflate Conquistador Cielo's value. But Stephens views this task with a calmness that is born of his self-confidence. "I've been around a long time," he said, "and I feel like I've been prepared for this kind of thing."