You didn't have to ask Eddie Maple how it felt to win the Belmont on Creme Fraiche. You only had to watch how high into the air he threw his whip as soon as he crossed the finish line. Which is to say that he launched that baby.
Later on, long after he had wiped the mud from his face and had time to regain control of his runaway emotions, Maple would try to be nonchalant about the victory, tossing it off as just "a big payday." But there is some recent history between Maple and the Belmont Stakes that says it was a lot more than that, that explains why Maple displayed such, shall we say, unbridled enthusiasm at the finish.
In 1982, when Conquistador Cielo began this unprecedented string of four straight Belmont winners for the now 71-year-old trainer Woody Stephens, Maple was supposed to be on board. But the day before the Belmont, Maple took a spill that left him with a broken rib, and he watched the race on TV from a hospital bed. Substituting for Maple at the last moment, Laffit Pincay Jr. flew in from the coast and rode the horse to victory.
In 1983, Stephens saddled Caveat in the Belmont. As Stephens' regular jock, Maple had first crack at the horse. But after riding him some as a 2-year-old, Maple chose to ride Chumming in the Triple Crown series. Chumming could do no better than 12th in the Kentucky Derby and never raced again. Meanwhile, the ride on Caveat -- and eventually the Belmont win -- went to Pincay.
In 1984, Stephens made it three in a row at the Belmont with Swale. And for the third straight year Maple could but think of what might have been. He'd had his choice of Stephens' horses, and had picked Devil's Bag over Swale. Devil's Bag, the 2-year-old champion, had looked to be invincible, perhaps the greatest colt since Secretariat. What choice did Maple have? But Devil's Bag suffered an inexplicable wilt in the Flamingo Derby and did not start any of the classics. When ill-fated Swale won what would turn out to be the last race of his short life, the Belmont, guess who was riding? Pincay. If it's true that when you're hot, you're hot, then it's equally, and pitifully, true that when you're not, brother, you are not.
Which brings us, more or less, to Saturday and this 1985 Belmont. Just to further set the stage, you should know that Pincay was once again in the field, once again on a Stephens horse, Stephan's Odyssey -- coupled, in fact, as an entry with Maple and Creme Fraiche. Am I leaving anything out? Oh, yeah. Maple began this year riding Stephan's Odyssey. He was taken off the horse by the owner, Henryk deKwiatkowski, after the Flamingo. So as Stephens was going for four in a row, so was Pincay, once again on a horse Maple (choose one: could, would, should) have had for his own.
And wouldn't you know that it came down to those two horses -- Creme Fraiche and Stephan's Odyssey -- at the top of the stretch as both passed by the favorite, Chief's Crown (who, embarrassingly, became only the third horse in history to lose as the favorite in all three classics). A stretch duel with Pincay. What would the odds be on Maple winning that? None too good, you'd think, considering that Pincay is generally conceded to be the strongest stretch rider in the game. It is said that if you are even, you simply don't beat Pincay home from the eighth-pole. Maple did.
Now what has he done? He's won for his patron saint, Woody Stephens, and sent him into the record books. He's won the spectral race. He's beaten the fabled rider Pincay, the same rider whose good fortune had been growing out of his own bad fortune. And in beating Stephan's Odyssey, he's avenged the insult done him by the owner. Maple even got to crow about it, gleefully saying of the second-place horse: "He got flat outfooted today, baby."
That's the context.
Understand the spontaneously joyful gesture of the whip launch now?
Understand why later, long after the tractors had harrowed the track and the whip was probably buried in ribbons of thick mud, he'd try to retrace his steps and ask someone, "You think that whip is still out there? I'd like to get it and frame it."
Much pressure off his back?
How much we can only guess. For when Maple had the chance to open the valve and let the steam rush into the open and perhaps dissipate forever into the air, he held semitight.
Of deKwiatkowski's decision, Maple would only say, "It's his horse. He can do what he wants." If there was a sneer on his face when he said it, his voice didn't give him away. Maple started to say something about not having "to take a back seat to Pincay," but that was as close as he got to publicly bad-mouthing anyone.
Of his three straight shutouts here at Belmont, Maple would concede that, yes, "you could say I've been unlucky -- unlucky and unfortunate." Stephens had graciously tried to even Maple's ledger by telling the press, "Eddie's had some tough breaks, but they all came back for him today." But Maple wasn't ready to buy that. Softly, very softly, Maple admitted, "They don't ever even up." But after a while he would add with a forced smile, "Time heals just about everything. I won't forget. But we're still here." He was trying hard not to reveal himself, and when he was pressed on his recent past he would not be moved. "I don't even want to talk about it," Maple said rather defiantly. "Let's talk about this one."
And so they did for a few more minutes: Maple and Stephens and the owner of Creme Fraiche, Betty Moran, who had just won the first Triple Crown race she'd ever entered. When it was finally time to leave, Maple reached over and grabbed the elegant, crystal goblet that Stephens had been drinking from. It was only water, but Maple sipped so slowly from the glass that surely it must have seemed to him like champagne.