Woody Stephens' streak of four consecutive victories in the Belmont Stakes is a training record that probably will stand for the next millennium. Then again, it may be challenged as soon as Saturday, when Stephens saddles Danzig Connection at Belmont Park in his bid for No. 5.
Danzig Connection is not nearly as good a horse as Conquistador Cielo (who won for Stephens in 1982), Caveat (1983), Swale (1984) or Creme Fraiche (1985), but he will still get plenty of support from bettors who figure the trainer has a magic formula for success in one of America's most demanding races.
Actually, he doesn't -- and that is what is so impressive about the 72-year-old Stephens' streak in New York's 1 1/2-mile classic.
Instead of applying a fixed strategy to the Belmont year after year, he has won it with vastly different horses and vastly different types of preparation. Unlike other veteran trainers who become set in their ways, Stephens stays flexible; he is willing to experiment, to change his mind, to take a gamble.
He needed all his skills, all the self-confidence from four decades of success, to win his first Belmont. Conquistador Cielo had been troubled by a small ankle fracture since he was 2, but Stephens was venturesome enough to use a newfangled gadget called the "Blue Boot" -- which sent an electric current through the affected area -- to heal it. When Conquistador Cielo was finally healthy, he won the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, spectacularly.
The Belmont was five days later. Few trainers would dare run a top horse with so little rest. Stephens didn't hesitate: "I had a really sharp, fit horse . . . a fresh horse. Not every horse could come back that quickly, but I was confident this one could."
A year after Conquistador Cielo's runaway victory, Stephens gave Caveat a sharp prep race over the track and won the Belmont 11 days later. One might have suspected that the trainer had found a winning formula. But in 1984, with Swale, he did just the opposite of sharpening him before the Belmont.
Stephens had been disappointed by the colt's poor showing in the Preakness, three weeks prior to the Belmont, and took the blame: "I thought the horse worked too fast before the Preakness. So when I worked him before the Belmont, I wanted to be real careful with him; he went a mile in 1:41."
Responding to the change in training pattern, Swale led all the way to tie Stephens with a 19th century trainer who had won the classic three straight times.
In his bid for No. 4, Stephens thought Stephan's Odyssey was his chief contender. He considered Creme Fraiche his second-best 3-year-old, albeit an exceptional mud runner. "During the week it looked like rain," Stephens recalled, "so I kept Creme Fraiche in there."
The skies opened on the morning of the race, and the mud-loving little gelding helped Stephens make history, reaffirming the principle that it helps to be lucky as well as skillful.
Stephens will need a stroke of luck again if he is to win the 118th Belmont, for Danzig Connection has not yet shown that he is a top-class racehorse. Danzig Connection was a decent 2-year-old, but he was set back by an injury.
"This winter in Florida," Stephens said, "I told the man [owner Henryk deKwiatkowski], 'The only chance we have to make the Triple Crown is in the Belmont, and he'll need three races to get to it.' "
Stephens got him those three races. Danzig Connection twice lost close decisions to older horses, then won the principal prep race for the Belmont, the Peter Pan Stakes. But his time was slow and he was hard-pressed to beat Clear Choice, who had lost the Preakness by 21 lengths a week earlier.
Stephens acknowledged, "He's got to improve four or five lengths to win the Belmont," but he thinks the colt has the capacity to do it. "I learned one thing from the Peter Pan," the trainer said. "This colt likes to be a competitor; he likes to be head-and-head for the lead."
After seeing Swale and Conquistador Cielo lead the Belmont all the way, he knows that speed is a much underrated virtue in this 1 1/2-mile event. He also knows that the recent race in the Peter Pan may give the colt an edge in sharpness over his presumed principal rivals, Ferdinand and Rampage, who are coming into the Belmont after three- and five-week layoffs, respectively.
Even so, Danzig Connection seems so overmatched that one might be tempted to say Stephens deserves a place in the history books if he can win the Belmont Stakes with this horse. But, of course, he's already in the history books.