Of course, Woody Stephens got in the last word. He's 68 years old, has been training racehorses for 41 of those years and has been a member of the racing Hall of Fame for the last six, so he knows what he's talking about, first or last. Last Saturday afternoon, after having been second-guessed all week, the man earned his say. Stephens set down his Scotch on the rocks and, eyes flashing, held forth. His grin was wicked.
"I'm the speed, I'm in the catbird seat," Stephens said. "Last Monday he [Conquistador Cielo] went a mile in 1:33. Today he won at a mile and a half! This is the best colt in America! He might be the Three-Year-Old of the Year. He might end up the Horse of the Year! He might even be the Sprinter of the Year. Before the year's over, he might win everything."
An hour earlier, Stephens had sent out Conquistador Cielo for the 114th running of the Belmont Stakes and had watched him hang 10 other colts out to dry in a smashing 14½-length victory in the last and longest of Triple Crown races. Behind Conquistador Cielo, left fairly twisting in the drizzle and wind, was the Kentucky Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, who passed tired horses in the stretch to come in second. The Preakness winner, Aloma's Ruler, no doubt asked to run once too often, was a dim bulb, finishing ninth, while the place horse in the Preakness, Linkage, who was the 2-1 Belmont favorite, was a fading fourth behind the 30-1 long shot Illuminate.
Not since Secretariat's 31-length triumph in 1973 has a Belmont Stakes been won more commandingly. And with that win Conquistador Cielo made clear that he was not only the nation's best 3-year-old but also, quite probably, the best racehorse in the land. He has tremendous natural speed, and he showed himself to be a stout, tractable animal who can carry it the classic distance. A good horse? Certainly. A great horse? Perhaps. This dude can really run.
As remarkable as Cielo's performance in the Belmont was the tortuous road he took to get there. This is a colt who, just three months ago, was so sore he could barely walk. There were mornings in March when Stephens couldn't get him out of his stall.
This is the colt who, just five days before the Belmont, carried a feathery 111 pounds and fricasseed a field of older horses in the venerable Metropolitan Handicap, winning the mile race by 7¼ lengths in 1:33 flat, the fastest eight furlongs ever run on the main track at 77-year-old Belmont Park.
This is also the colt who, off his pedigree, was no more bred to want 1½ miles than he was bred to want Pia Zadora. He's a son of the impetuous Mr. Prospector, a fast horse who sires fast kids, but kids not known for going a distance.
Finally, this is the colt who, on the eve of the Belmont, lost his regular rider, Eddie Maple, when Maple suffered a broken rib in a spill at Belmont, forcing Stephens to summon Laffit Pincay Jr. from the West Coast. Pincay, by the way, was bumped from the 10 p.m. Los Angeles to New York flight, but caught a later one to Boston, where he spent part of Belmont Day at Logan Airport. In all his years as a leading jockey, Pincay had never won a Triple Crown race, and he had never been on Cielo's back until Stephens lifted his boot on Belmont Day. For Stephens himself, the Belmont was the only Triple Crown race he hadn't won.
The Cielo saga began when Henryk deKwiatkowski, a Polish-born aviation executive who lives in New York City, paid $150,000 for the bay colt at the 1980 Saratoga yearling sale. He named him Conquistador Cielo—Sky Conqueror in Spanish—after an aviation club, Conquistadores del Cielo, of which deKwiatkowski is a member.
Cielo showed great lick as a 2-year-old. Last July he stomped a field of maidens at Belmont in his second start, winning off by eight, and in his third go he won the Saratoga Special, beating Herschel Walker and Timely Writer. In the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, he got bumped and finished fourth, beaten by only a neck, but now Stephens found a swelling on the left foreleg, which turned out to be a small V-shaped fracture called a "saucer" fracture. "A very painful thing," says Stephens, who promptly shelved the colt.
Cielo was sore through the fall and winter, but Stephens nursed him along, knowing he had a good thing if he could only get the colt to the races. Stephens finally did. On Feb. 16 Cielo came in fourth in his 1982 debut, and 10 days later showed the depth of his quality by beating Hostage, a good runner, over seven furlongs at Hialeah in a fast 1:22[1/5]. Stephens looked as though he had a big gun for the Flamingo Stakes. He didn't. The saucer fracture had never really healed, and it soon became so painful that Cielo could barely walk.
Stephens was stumped until Dr. William O. Reed, part owner of Timely Writer, told him of a newfangled gadget called a bi-osteogen machine. Powered by rechargeable batteries, it heals breaks by inducing bone growth through electrical impulses. Stephens tried it on Cielo. Every day, for three or four hours, the colt stood in his stall with the machine's pads tied to his left cannon bone. Every night Stephens took the machine to his home in Miami Lakes to recharge it.
His wife, Lucille, posted a sign on the front door to remind Stephens when he left in the morning to take the machine with him. The sign said, DON'T FORGET CONQUISTADOR. "Woody spent many hours with the colt," Lucille says. "He had great confidence in that machine." Cielo walked during the first seven days of this therapy and galloped easily the next four weeks.
"He's been all right ever since," Stephens says. In April the colt was back in serious training. The Kentucky Derby (May 1) was out, so Stephens pointed him for the Withers mile on May 8, with hopes of running him in the Preakness on May 15. "But he came up with a cough," Stephens says. "We skipped the Withers and raced in Maryland."
At Pimlico, Cielo won an allowance race by three, but Stephens passed on the Preakness. Then on May 19, Cielo tow-roped a field of older horses at Belmont, winning by 11. "That set him up for the Metropolitan," Stephens says. "The Met set him up for the Belmont."
Still, Stephens wasn't sure. DeKwiatkowski had urged a go. The night of the Met, the owner said to Stephens, "Is there a possibility that he can run again?"
"You mean the Belmont?" Stephens asked. "Let me think about it." The trainer moved closer the next day. "Perhaps there is a possibility," he said. DeKwiatkowski wanted to run. Stephens finally agreed. It was a gamble, of course, potentially damaging to a nice young colt.
"I liked the way he came out of the Met," Stephens said. "He looked good finishing; his legs were still under him. It didn't take a lot out of him. It all depends on the kind of horse you got. He's steady. He doesn't wash out or fret."
The only thing that gave Stephens pause was the colt's pedigree. It just didn't add up to 12 furlongs. "The breeding hasn't gone that far," Stephens mused, "but you'll never know unless you try him. Right now he's as ripe as an Alabama watermelon. We'll just see if he can get the route."
DeKwiatkowski began to have reservations, too. On Friday he read an article in the Daily Racing Form which said, "Of course, exceptions make the rule, but a victory by Conquistador Cielo would be an inexplicable, stunning upset [of breeding theory]...." The owner felt queasy after reading it. "I told my children not to bet on the horse," he says.
The morning of the race, before leaving for the track, Lucille Stephens asked her husband, "Do you really think he'll go a mile and a half?" Stephens replied, "I know what I'm doing. Don't worry about it. He'll go two miles." By that time, of course, Maple was in the hospital and Pincay was flying across the country. The jockey finally arrived in New York late in the morning, looking tired. Then came the rain. It fell lightly at first and then harder, and the wind gusted and the temperature dropped. It was cold and drizzling as post time neared.
"Make him relax," Stephens told Pincay. "Sit very still with him. He likes the mud. If you need to go to the whip, he'll respond."
Pincay never really needed the whip. Leaving from the far outside post, he let Cielo gather himself at the break and kept him wide to the first turn. A colt named Anemal raced to the front on the rail, taking a length lead around the clubhouse turn. Pincay kept Cielo 20 feet off the rail on the turn. "I didn't want him to see other horses and get rank," he said.
Turning into the backstretch, Pincay, a rider along for the ride, let the colt roll to the lead on his own. They raced the first half-mile in :47[1/5] seconds, sharp time. Pincay asked for nothing. Cielo went down the backstretch in easy, rhythmic strides. Suddenly High Ascent, a 40-1 shot, moved to him along the rail, raced with him for several jumps and then appeared to take a slight lead as they headed for the turn. Pincay could feel Cielo get anxious as High Ascent came alongside.
Stephens had said Cielo could be rated. "I expect three-quarters in 1:12," he had said. The teletimer flashed the three-quarters: 1:12. Pincay didn't move. Around the far turn, Bill Shoemaker began to join the hunt on Linkage, and, as they neared the three-eighths pole, Linkage started to close in, cutting Cielo's margin to two lengths. He got no closer. High Ascent began to fade, and at once Cielo opened the lead to three. Four.
This Belmont Stakes was his but good. At a mile and a quarter he was timed in 2:03[1/5]. He turned for home and opened five lengths, six. All through the stretch, with Linkage fading and no colt making a serious run, Conquistador Cielo pulled away. Seven. Nine. Twelve. Pincay tapped him on the shoulder with the stick. He opened 14, never missing a beat, and hit the wire in 2:28⅕ so-so time but a smashing victory.
After more than four decades of training, Woodford Cefis Stephens had finally won his first Belmont. "This puts the icing on the cake," he said. "All those years on the racetrack. Didn't leave much doubt, did he?" None at all.