A star has been born in New York.
His name is Devil's Bag, and although most racing fans have not yet heard his name, they will soon. The 2-year-old has won the first two starts of his career so impressively that he is already evoking comparisons to Seattle Slew.
Before the colt made his debut at Saratoga, rumors spread around the track that this was Woody Stephens' best 2-year-old. That meant a lot, because no trainer in America has so many expensive, well-bred young horses in his barn as Stephens. And, indeed, the rumors were true.
"I took six 2-year-olds to Hialeah this winter," Stephens said yesterday, "and when they'd break from the gate I'd tell the riders to keep 'em together. But the rider would have trouble keeping this one back with the others. One morning I decide to breeze him three-quarters of a mile and a told the boy to go in about 1:14. The colt went in 1:12, and that's when I thought he was a good horse.
"Another morning in New York I worked him in company with Chumming (Stephens' $1 million 3-year-old) and he beat Chumming. He was very impressive."
On Aug. 20, people at Saratoga got to see what Stephens already knew. When the gate opened for the maiden race, Devil's Bag popped out to take the lead, and jockey Eddie Maple promptly put him under stout restraint. He never seemed to be asking the colt for any effort, and yet Devil's Bag sped the quarter-mile in 22 1/5 seconds. Maple was still applying a virtual hammerlock as Devil's Bag drew away to win by 7 1/2 lengths in 1:10 3/5 for six furlongs. Every racing fan relishes the chance to see a future champion launch his career, and this seemed to be one of those moments.
Still, Devil's Bag hadn't beaten anybody in that maiden race. What would he do against some legitimate competition? He provided that answer Sunday. In an allowance race at Belmont Park, he was facing a Calumet Farm colt named Exit Five B., who had won his debut by nearly nine lengths. No problem. Devil's Bag blasted to the lead, opened a four-length lead after a quarter-mile and drew away to trounce his rival by five lengths in 1:10 3/5.
Of course, some young horses display precocity in the early stages of their career and eventually fizzle. When this happens, it's usually for a reason. Sometimes they fail to go longer distances because of their pedigrees. Sometimes they are stopped by physical infirmities. Sometimes they are mismanaged.
But at this stage of his career, everything looks auspicious for Devil's Bag. A son of the stallion Halo (who sired Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo), he is a full brother to Glorious Song, a champion mare who was a stout distance runner. "He gives the impression that longer distances won't faze him," Stephens said.
Moreover, he is sound and healthy. In recent years Stephens has struggled to train horses like Conquistador Cielo and the lightning-quick Danzig, whose brilliance was compromised by physical infirmities. He knows that so many things can go wrong with a good horse that he prefaces his comments about Devil's Bag by saying, "If he stays sound . . . " and "If we get lucky . . . " But so far Devil's Bag has no problems.
There are plenty of other things Stephens likes about this colt--things that fans who watch him run can't fully appreciate. "He has the head on him, the disposition," Stephens said. "He's a very sensible kind of horse. If you don't think that's important, wait till you walk into the paddock for the Kentucky Derby an hour before post time with all those people around."
Anybody who has seen Devil's Bag knows that it is not ridiculously premature for Stephens to be talking about the conditions he may encounter at Churchill Downs in May 1984.