ELMONT, N.Y. -- Woody Stephens will have to perform a training miracle to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
But in view of Stephens' amazing streak of five straight victories in the Belmont, no rational man would discount the possibility that he can do it again.
Stephens will enter two horses in the final leg of the Triple Crown. One of them, Conquistarose, is a plodder noted only for his mud-running ability, but the other, Gone West, does have plenty of talent. He has won or placed in his last four starts, all major New York stakes events. However, Gone West has never won beyond a mile, and there is nothing in his credentials or record to suggest that he will be able to handle the demanding 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont. Nothing, that is, but a 73-year-old Hall of Fame trainer who would like nothing more than to add to his Belmont legend.
Stephens is keenly aware of his place in the sport's history, and he knows that his Belmont winning streak will be the most durable of all his records. "It's just impossible to think of anyone doing it again," he said. Indeed, it is hard to think of any record in any sport that figures to be so enduring.
Stephens' streak is remarkable not just because of its longevity, but because it demonstrates the full range of his skills -- his patience, his boldness, his versatility. People ask him incessantly what his "secret" of winning the Belmont is, but even the garrulous Stephens can offer no pat answers. He trains his horses according to their individual needs, not according to a formula.
Stephens does recognize that horses coming into the Belmont after a recent, sharp prep race have a significant edge over rivals who have been idle for three weeks since the Preakness. This was the key to his first -- and most dramatic -- victory in the Belmont, with Conquistador Cielo in 1982.
The colt had set a track record for one mile in winning the Metropolitan Handicap on a Monday. When Stephens entered him in the Belmont five days later, even owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski wondered if he were being a bit rash. Stephens told him, "Wear your blue suit on Saturday" -- meaning, get ready to pose for the winner's circle photograph. The colt was so sharp, Stephens knew, that it didn't matter that he was not truly a 1 1/2-mile horse. Conquistador Cielo proved him right -- by a margin of nearly 15 lengths.
The next year he skipped the Preakness with Caveat, sharpened him with a prep race 12 days before the Belmont and won the classic for the second time. Creme Fraiche (1985) and Danzig Connection (1986) both had similarly scheduled preps and produced the best performance of their career to date when they won their Belmonts. But Stephens has no hard-and-fast formulas. Before he won with Swale in 1984, he lightened the colt's pre-race activity, reasoning that working too fast had hurt him in the Preakness.
It is the Conquistador Cielo model that Stephens has had in mind with Gone West. Both colts are sons of Mr. Prospector, whose offspring tend to be less effective when they go beyond 1 1/8 miles. Like Conquistador Cielo at the same stage of his career, Gone West has not shown in his races any indications that he would be effective at a long distance. Stephens has harbored doubts about his stamina all spring.
In the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial Stakes, Gone West looked like a sure winner until -- in the terminology of human runners -- he "hit the wall" shortly before the finish. When Stephens gave him his final prep for the Belmont, in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes, he tried a new strategy, coming from far off the pace, but he fell short again. He still has never won around two turns. Unfortunately for Stephens, the parallels with 1983 ended with this prep race. Conquistador Cielo's tuneup for the Belmont was a sensational performance; Gone West's half-length loss to Leo Castelli (who had been soundly defeated in the Kentucky Derby) was not.
Stephens, however, was encouraged by the colt's effort. "I did think his race in the Peter Pan was a good one," the trainer said. "He gave away 12 pounds to the winner. He showed he could relax early in the race and he threw in a nice big run at the end. He's snapped back quick since the race. He's eating okay, he's in bloom, he's now a very fit horse."
For a mile race, or maybe a mile and one-eighth. But how is he going to handle the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles?
"I'm not too sure he can," Stephens conceded. "But I do expect a slow pace, and that will help him. If he can relax, he might set the pace himself. Then -- maybe."
If Gone West delivers his best performance and benefits from an easy trip, he could beat Alysheba and give Stephens Belmont victory No. 6. But even if he fails, Stephens won't have to mourn. He still will have a colt who can accomplish a lot at shorter distances, and he still will have his own unshakable place in history.