Long after the winner of the 117th Belmont Stakes has been largely forgotten, racing people still will marvel at the feat of trainer Woody Stephens.
Not only did the 71-year-old horseman win the Belmont today for the fourth consecutive year, but his two-horse entry ran one-two, as Creme Fraiche edged Stephan's Odyssey by a half-length to become the first gelding to win this race.
Before today, Stephens had modestly disclaimed possession of a magic formula for winning the Belmont; he pointed out that he had the best horse with Conquistador Cielo in 1982, Caveat in 1983 and Swale in 1984. But his horses in today's race weren't especially distinguished; Stephens brought both of them to a peak performance in one of America's most important and demanding races.
In the case of Creme Fraiche, he was also blessed by good fortune, because the horse improves dramatically on a muddy track like the one at Belmont today.
"I doubt if anyone will break this record," Stephens said. "The game has changed so much. One hundred years ago, there were possibly 5,000 foals a year. Now there are 50,000. It's much tougher today to win two in a row, much less four in row."
Stephens also was aided by one of the hottest paces in the history of the Belmont, which took its toll on the front-runners and enabled Creme Fraiche and Stephan's Odyssey to rally from next-to-last and last place, respectively, and cover the 1 1/2 miles in a swift 2:27, the fourth-fastest winning time ever in the Belmont.
Stephan's Odyssey was 4 1/2 lengths ahead of the tiring favorite, Chief's Crown, with Fast Account fourth. Tank's Prospect, the Preakness winner, pulled right front suspensory ligaments during the stretch run and finished last. X-rays of the leg were to be taken Sunday, but Eugene Klein, the owner of Tank's Prospect, said the colt would be retired from racing.
"This little horse has improved a lot lately," Stephens said of Creme Fraiche. "He's run nine races since I took him to Florida last winter and he's got two wins and five seconds. I decided after his great trip in the Jersey Derby at Garden State that he deserved a chance to try this.
"This little horse has never lost in the mud. He's a hard, tough-running little horse. I really didn't know which of my horses I liked the best this morning."
Everybody involved in the Belmont knew that the surprise entry of speedy Eternal Prince would ensure an honest pace, but it turned out to be blistering when Purple Mountain outsprinted him and took the lead, racing the first half-mile in :47 flat.
Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. saw what was happening and wisely kept Chief's Crown five or six lengths behind the leaders. Eddie Maple, aboard Creme Fraiche, and Laffit Pincay Jr., on Stephan's Odyssey, had little choice. The styles of their mounts dictated that they lay near the back of the pack.
As the leaders began to weaken from running a mile in a fast 1:35 1/5, Cordero made his move and surged on the outside to take a narrow lead. But it was short-lived. Both of Stephens' horses were accelerating strongly. Pincay squeezed through on the rail with Stephan's Odyssey. Maple ran into a bit of traffic with Creme Fraiche and swung four-wide entering the stretch.
As Chief's Crown began to fade, the entrymates took command and battled head-and-head.
"At the sixteenth pole," Stephens said, "I thought it was going to be a dead heat and I'd have five winners." But Creme Fraiche inched away, running the final quarter in :25 3/5.
The winning entry paid $7, $6.40 and $3.40. Chief's Crown paid $2.80 to show.
Creme Fraiche had not won a major stakes race before today, but Stephens was convinced the gelding had one special talent: running in the mud. He had won his first race on an off track and always trained well in the mud, and Stephens took him to Churchill Downs last month in the hopes of getting a muddy track for the Derby.
He got his wish a week early -- the track was sloppy for the Derby Trial, and Creme Fraiche won it. But Stephens didn't enter him in the Derby. Instead, he prepped for the Belmont in the Jersey Derby, where Creme Fraiche finished second to Spend a Buck.
Still, he was considered much the weaker half of the entry -- at least until the rains fell this morning. "I've never been so happy to look out the window in the morning and see rain," said owner Elizabeth Moran.
"I don't want to take anything away from any of the other horses, but I thought I had the best horse today," said Maple, 36, who last won the Belmont on Temperence Hill in 1980. "I had him right where I wanted him. We had a good trip."
The victory today was especially satisfying for Maple, who rides regularly for Stephens but for a variety of reasons didn't have the mount on any of his three previous Belmont winners.
"I'm very happy. I've had some unfortunate things happen," Maple said. "But Mr. Stephens throws me a bone once in a while.
But this still always will be remembered as Woody Stephens' day.
It might have seemed that he had already accomplished every important feat in the thoroughbred sport, but today he could say, "I think this is the greatest day I've ever had."