Who owns New York? Well, if this is the day they run the Belmont Stakes, it must be Woody Stephens.
On Saturday afternoon the 72-year-old trainer watched through a nasty, persistent drizzle as the lightly raced Danzig Connection rewarded his patience by winning the last and longest of the Triple Crown races. This is now five straight Belmonts for Stephens. An unprecedented five, just as last year's was an unprecedented fourth. "It is unheard of," Stephens forced himself to admit before anyone had the chance to beat it out of him.
There were Conquistador Cielo in 1982, Caveat in 1983, Swale in 1984, Creme Fraiche last year, and now Danzig Connection. "I really don't know how to feel," Stephens said with a practiced wink. "But I suppose it'll last awhile." Last year, Stephens drank champagne in celebration. This year it was Scotch. "Champagne will rust your pipes," he explained jauntily. All told, Stephens has put nine horses into Belmonts. He has five winners, two seconds and two thirds. So wise up. If he saddles Mr. Ed in this race next year, don't ask questions, bet the ranch.
Much of the prerace drama in an otherwise untrumpeted race concerned whether Ferdinand, the Kentucky Derby winner, would run on the sloppy track. That question -- to scratch, or not to scratch -- was answered at the last possible moment, 45 minutes before post time, when it was announced that all 10 entered horses would start in the Belmont, with or without swim fins and snorkels. On a day when 41 horses were scratched in eight other races, you might wonder why none bailed out on the Belmont. Here's why: The winner gets $338,640.
With Ferdinand running, attention focused on 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker's attempt to win two of this year's classic races. Even more than Stephens, Shoe was the people's choice, and they cooed to him during the parade around the paddock: "One more time, Willie!" "Whaddya say, Shoe?" "Shoooooo!" Before the race, Shoe had wondered whether Ferdinand, a California-based horse, could handle running in mud. Mud in California usually means no racing today: Malibu just washed into the ocean. And though Shoe came out of the race satisfied the horse could, Ferdinand's performance indicated that, although he could survive mud, he couldn't conquer it.
At the top of the stretch when Danzig Connection, Ferdinand and Johns Treasure -- a trio trained, incidentally, by the Golden Oldie crew of Stephens, 72, Charles Whittingham, 73, and Walter Kelley, 79 -- were all neck and neck, it was Danzig Connection who persevered and ultimately drew clear. "Those old guys were coming to beat me. But once you cross the Hudson, the buildings get awful tall,' " Stephens crowed.
Ferdinand settled for show, his third straight in-the-money finish in this Triple Crown, and Shoe evaluated his effort neatly: "He ran a good race, but he labored a bit and got tired at the end. It didn't get away from me. I just got beat, that's all."
Other than Stephens, of course, the big deal of the day was Chris McCarron, who rode Danzig Connection. Although he is surely one of the premier jockeys in the game, oddly, McCarron had never won a Triple Crown race, nor had he ridden for Stephens. Now, in his 12th Triple Crown start, he has done both. And, by finishing second in the Derby on Bold Arrangement, third in the Preakness on Broad Brush and first here on Danzig Connection, McCarron became the first jockey since Eric Guerin in 1955 to guide three different horses onto the board in the Triple Crown races. For your information, Guerin rode Summer Tan to third in the Derby behind Swaps, Traffic Judge to third in the Preakness behind Nashua and Blazing Count to second in the Belmont, again behind Nashua.
"I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time," McCarron said after acknowledging the Trivial Pursuit nature of his accomplishment. Bold Arrangement was shipped back to England immediately after the Derby, and Dick Small, Broad Brush's trainer, replaced Vince Bracciale Jr. with McCarron for the Preakness allegedly on instruction of the horse's owner, Robert Meyerhoff. When Broad Brush wasn't entered in the Belmont, McCarron was without a mount here until last week.
The story is told that McCarron telephoned Walter Kelley from Hollywood Park and asked if he might ride Johns Treasure. Kelley said he'd like to say yes, but the owner, John Murrell, was inclined toward Laffit Pincay Jr. "Well, if it's him you want," McCarron told Kelley, "his agent's right here." McCarron put the agent, Tony Matos, on the phone and, as McCarron paid for the call, the two of them worked the deal that put Pincay on Johns Treasure.
Stephens needed a jock to ride Danzig Connection since Pat Day, who normally rode the horse, was committed to Rampage in the Belmont. He immediately thought of Pincay, who'd ridden Woody's first three Belmont winners. But reading the paper he learned that Pincay was now unavailable to him. With both Day and Pincay locked up elsewhere, Woody turned to McCarron: "And, of course, I said yes."
The fit was perfect. When McCarron came off the track someone hollered to him, "Thanks, you just gave Woody his fifth Belmont," and McCarron hollered back, "You've got it wrong. Woody just gave me my first." McCarron was absolutely enthralled with the ride. "I was just a passenger on that horse. All I did was chirp to him, and he moved. I've never been in a race this big where it was so easy and I could just sit on a horse as long as I did."
See you next year.