Woody Stephens' folksy, chatty demeanor belies the incredible strain of his job.
It's tough enough to train a barn full of expensive horses, but Stephens trains mostly for breeders and that doubles the pressure. He has to manage a horse so his record will look good when he goes to stud, winning classic races while avoiding embarrassments that could devalue a future stallion by millions of dollars.
Stephens wound up in a hospital after the stress of managing Conquistador Cielo, Devil's Bag and Swale (whose combined worth was at least $90 million) from 1982 to 1984. So the veteran trainer probably feels as if he's on a vacation as he comes to Laurel to prepare Creme Fraiche for Saturday's Washington, D.C. International.
Creme Fraiche is a gelding, which means that Stephens doesn't have to answer to a bunch of nervous syndicate members, doesn't have to hype the animal as a stallion prospect. "The only thing we have to think about is dollars," he said.
Stephens has done an exemplary job of amassing those dollars. Although Creme Fraiche never has seemed to possess much star quality, he has earned $1.29 million this season. Under Stephens' judicious management, the 3-year-old has rarely had a bad race. He has finished in the money in his last 13 starts.
If Creme Fraiche stays healthy, he could go on to be one of the top money-winning horses of all time. He will give Stephens a chance to show what he can do when he can train a good horse as freely and aggressively as he wants.
Even though Stephens is enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame and has written plenty of racing records, some racetrack people still find grounds to knock him.
Both Conquistador Cielo and Devil's Bag held their top form for a relatively short period and were whisked off to stud as soon as they started to falter, with Stephens putting forth a verbal smoke screen about their true physical condition. But that was his job.
Stephens got enough mileage out of both colts to get them syndicated for about $36 million each, and never let either one be embarrassed. He wasn't permitted to take chances with them.
"With horses like Devil's Bag and Conquistador Cielo," Stephens said, "I would never dream of trying them on the grass. When you've got a horse who's syndicated, you just don't want bad races on their records."
Creme Fraiche never has had to worry about a future stud career. Because he was so hard to handle in the early stages of his development, he was gelded. His owner, Elizabeth Moran, doubted that Stephens even would be willing to accept a gelding with a humble pedigree. The trainer assented because he had had such success with her colt Morning Bob the year before, but in truth he did not think Creme Fraiche was anything special.
He thought Creme Fraiche's game was running in the mud. The gelding broke his maiden in the slop; he won the Derby Trial in the slop; he gave Stephens his fourth consecutive Belmont Stakes triumph in the mud.
But since midsummer, Creme Fraiche has shown he has more than one dimension, and even Stephens conceded, "I guess he's surprised me." He won three Grade 1 stakes on fast tracks, then finished third in his turf debut at Aqueduct two weeks ago.
Stephens knows Creme Fraiche can greatly increase his prospects for making money if he is as effective on grass as he is on dirt, and he wants to give the gelding another chance in the International.
"I've liked the way he's worked on the grass," Stephens said. "It looks like he's happy out there. I think the soft track at Laurel and the mile and a half distance will help me. I don't know if he's good enough but, what the heck, we've gotta try."
It's been a long time since Stephens has had the luxury of taking a what-the-heck-we've-gotta-try attitude toward any of the horses in his barn.