When he won his record four straight runnings of the Belmont Stakes, trainer Woody Stephens could rightly attribute his success to the fact that he had the best horse each time. But Stephens' fifth straight victory in the classic today can only be attributed to his magic.
Danzig Connection had won only one stakes race before today; he had never run especially fast; he had never won in the mud. But what did it matter? He had the 72-year-old Hall of Famer on his side, and that was all he needed to score a 1 1/4-length victory over Johns Treasure in the 118th running of the $564,400 Belmont. Ferdinand was third.
Even Stephens had acknowledged that Danzig Connection "would have to improve four or five lengths" to have a chance, but he figured that he would have one distinct edge over the favorites today. Having won this 1 1/2-mile test twice with front-runners, he knew that Danzig Connection's speed would be invaluable in a 10-horse field with no true front-runners. These were his instructions to jockey Chris McCarron: Get him out of the gate fast, but if somebody else seems determined to go for the lead, let him have it.
When the gate opened, jockey Jose Santos wanted the lead with Mogambo. When he gunned his colt to the front, McCarron let Danzig Connection settle into second outside him. "He was going easily," McCarron said. "I just wanted to make sure that he didn't get too much slop kicked in his face."
Mogambo maintained a lead of a length or two through most of the run down the backstretch, covering the first half-mile in a fairly quick 47 4/5 seconds and the six furlongs in 1:12 4/5. As the leaders approached the turn, Bill Shoemaker sent Ferdinand up the rail into contention, knowing that he couldn't afford to wait too long to make his move on this speed-favoring track. Then, as Danzig Connection drew abreast of Mogambo, Shoemaker angled the Kentucky Derby winner outside them both. From behind them all, Johns Treasure was moving widest.
When Mogambo faded, the Belmont turned into a three-horse race, and the leaders were abreast of each other as they turned into the stretch. But McCarron felt that he had the right horse as he bid for his first victory in a Triple Crown event. "I never let him run until the eighth pole," the jockey said. "I was just a passenger until then. As soon as I moved my hands, he responded."
Danzig Connection took command in the final eighth of a mile, and reached the wire in a slow 2:29 4/5 for the 1 1/2 miles. Johns Treasure overhauled Ferdinand in the final strides to get second place. Rampage, the 5-to-2 favorite, never got into contention and finished seventh.
The winner paid $18. The triple paid $498, and all a bettor had to do to hit it was to wager on the three oldest trainers in the race: Stephens, Walter Kelley (79) and Charles Whittingham (73).
Danzig Connection was considered one of the better horses in a weak 2-year-old crop last season, even though he never finished first in a stake. An injury set back his development as a 3-year-old and, this winter, Stephens told owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski that the colt wouldn't be able to make the earlier races in the Triple Crown series; the Belmont would be his objective.
Danzig Connection lost two allowance races against older horss, then won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont May 25. But the victory was sufficiently narrow and unimpressive that even the trainer's many fans had trouble believing him; the crowd of 43,137 thus let the winner go to the post at 8 to 1.
But now that Danzig Connection has become his Belmont winner No. 5, after Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale and Creme Fraiche, Stephens will be justifiably hailed by the whole racing world. The first salute came from McCarron: "Woody, you are unbelievable, I mean just unbelievable," he said on the way to the trophy presentation."
McCarron said later, "I've never been able to ride in a classic race of this stature and sit so long on a horse, and it just shows you what a championship trainer he is. The fact that Woody was able to get him to stay a mile and a half with the small amount of preparation he had is something I just can't believe. He's the greatest."
Ogygian, who missed the Triple Crown races because of an injury last winter, won the $81,500 Riva Ridge Stakes today at Belmont.