It was only a midweek feature race with a $75,000 purse, but there was a special air of anticipation and electricity at Belmont Park before the Cowdin Stakes today.
This was the first stakes race for Devil's Bag, a 2-year-old who had won his only two starts so impressively that he was already an object of adulation, as well as high hopes and wishful thinking.
"We need a new hero," a man in the paddock said before the Cowdin, and almost everybody at Belmont would share that sentiment. American racing has not had an exciting superstar since Spectacular Bid was retired. Could Devil's Bag be the one?
Today he gave an unequivocal answer to that question: Yes! He not only ran the fastest race in the Cowdin's 61-year history--seven furlongs in a sensational 1:21 2/5, but he did it with such consummate ease that he evoked comparisons with the greatest 2-year-olds of the past.
Even before this race, trainer Woody Stephens had been saying, "This is as good a 2-year-old as I've ever had." The Hall of Famer has had quite a few great ones, most recently Conquistador Cielo, so this was no idle statement.
Devil's Bag had won his debut at Saratoga by 7 1/2 lengths and his second start by five, and he was under extreme restraint both times. Still, the skeptics pointed out, easy victories like those can be deceptive. And, after all, Devil's Bag still had not run a dazzlingly fast race.
This was going to be the day. "I really trained him for this race," Stephens said. "I wanted to bury those other suckers once and for all." Devil's Bag needed little more than a quarter of a mile to accomplish that.
He broke onto the lead in front of his top rival, Exit Five B, who had won his previous start by nearly eight lengths. Eddie Maple was hardly moving a muscle as Devil's Bag cruised the first quarter in 22 3/5. Jacinto Vasquez was tapping Exit Five B with his whip, trying to keep up.
Devil's Bag covered the half mile in 45 1/5, and Exit Five B couldn't stay close, even though Vasquez was urging him feverishly. The leader opened a five-length lead on the turn, racing the six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, just one fifth of a second off Belmont's track record for the distance. He cruised to the finish line three lengths in front of the late-closing Dr. Carter, with Exit Five B another three lengths back in third place.
Devil's Bag did not run so fast because the track was especially souped-up. His seven furlong time of 1:21 2/5 is roughly the equivalent of a mile in 1:34 1/5. Half an hour before he ran, a field of some of the better older horses in New York, including the Eclipse Award winner Deputy Minister, went the distance in 1:34 2/5. For a 2-year-old to run faster than stakes quality older horses at this stage of his career is absolutely extraordinary.
Stephens understood the implications of that final time. "I've been around this game for 51 years," he said, "and I've never seen a 2-year-old go 1:21 2/5 and wrapped up besides that." In the winner's circle he was talking about his colt as a candidate for the horse of the year title.
There have been plenty of other precocious 2-year-olds who have flopped at the age of 3. But Devil's Bag seems to have all the credentials to keep getting better. He has a masterful trainer in Stephens. And he has the breeding to go a long distance.
Racing has a hero.