Charles Whittingham and Woody Stephens have been winning major stakes races for 40 years and have carried on a good-natured, long-distance rivalry for much of that time.
For the most part, the 73-year-old Californian and the 72-year-old New Yorker have waged their rivalry from opposite ends of the country. But on Saturday at Belmont Park they will meet head-on, seeking to make history and achieve personal milestones.
Stephens, a man proud and conscious of his place in the sports history, likes to tease Whittingham that he has trained a world-record 183 stakes winners (compared to Stephens' total of 101) because he has faced soft competition in California. "I keep telling him," Stephens said, "that when you cross the Hudson, those buildings get really tall."
Whittingham likes to counterjab by saying that he is too busy training horses to keep track of statistics. He'll leave that to Stephens.
On Saturday, Whittingham will saddle the favorite, Ferdinand, as he tries to win the Belmont Stakes for the first time. Stephens will attempt to break his own record -- which is already one of the most amazing feats in the history of his profession -- when he attempts to win the Belmont for the fifth consecutive year with Danzig Connection.
Whittingham appears to have all the edges today. Ferdinand is not a brilliant racehorse by any means, but he is the most accomplished entrant in the 10-horse Belmont field, having won the Kentucky Derby and finished second to Snow Chief in the Preakness.
The son of Nijinsky II is ideally conditioned for the 1 1/2-mile distance and, besides, Whittingham's forte is preparing horses for long races. In fact, he rarely wins sprints at all.
His only disadvantages are the possibility of a sloppy track and the prospect of a slow pace in the Belmont. The track was very wet today, and Whittingham is convinced that Ferdinand won't like mud. "If we don't get much more rain, I don't think it will matter one way or the other," the trainer said this morning. "We've got 45 minutes before post time to scratch, so there's no use getting excited yet."
If the track dries out, Ferdinand's main problem will be the lack of speed in the field, which will hurt a horse with his plodding style. Jockey Bill Shoemaker, seeking his fifth victory in this classic, will surely try to keep Ferdinand closer to the pace than he was in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but he can't chance Ferdinand's style too much.
Ferdinand's disadvantage is Danzig Connection's one discernible advantage. The Stephens colt hasn't been particularly impressive in his three starts this season, not even in his victory in the Peter Pan Stakes here two weekends ago. But he has the kind of tractable speed and even-paced style which wins Belmonts. Stephens has won this race twice with front-runners -- Conquistador Cielo in 1982 and Swale in 1984 -- and he may try to do it again.
Overall, this is one of the weakest Belmont fields in many years, but because Ferdinand's credentials don't dazzle anybody, a number of horses with modest accomplishments to date are given a legitimate chance to win.
*Mogambo has been a disappointment most of this season; he ran poorly in the Kentucky Derby to finish 10th. But in his second-place finish behind Snow Chief in the Jersey Derby, he may have started living up to the high hopes trainer Leroy Jolley has always had for him. His five-furlong workout in 57 4/5 seconds this week suggests that he is razor-sharp now.
*Rampage would probably have won the Kentucky Derby if he had not been stopped cold on the rail entering the stretch. But he suffered some minor knee problems after the race that set back his training slightly. It is hardly a positive sign when trainer Gary Thomas says things like, "I wish I had another week to prepare him." Or: "I'm a little concerned about how tight he is without a race since the Kentucky Derby."
*Johns Treasure may ultimately prove to be the best horse in this Belmont field, although he is more likely to prove it later in the year. He looked impressive as he won a recent allowance race here by eight lengths, running a mile in 1:35, but he has raced only four times in his career and has never gone farther than a mile.
His 79-year-old trainer, Walter Kelley, may figure he won't ever have a better shot to win the Belmont, but there will be two other septuagenarians saddling horses on Saturday who figure to beat him.