Last Saturday morning, some eight hours before the 115th running of the Belmont Stakes, trainers Woody Stephens and Sidney Watters Jr. crossed bridle paths in the stable area of Belmont Park. They're old friends. For years, as two of the best and hardest-working professionals in the game, they had traded kind words and gentle barbs in their comings and goings on the Belmont back-stretch. Now, for the first time, they were about to saddle horses against each other in the track's premier race. Watters was sending out the favorite, front-running Slew o' Gold, a fast, beautifully made son of the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. Stephens' horse was Caveat, the second choice, an equally handsome bay whose game is to come from off the pace.
"You sleep well last night?" Stephens asked Watters, teasing.
"I needed two alarm clocks to wake me up," said the unflappable Watters by way of rejoinder.
"But in the terrible dreams you were having," Woody shot back, "I was coming after you, chasing you down! How did them dreams feel?"
As things turned out, Woodford Cefis Stephens came as close to envisioning the final moments of this Belmont as any handicapper on the grounds. Caveat made it emphatically, unequivocally his race at the turn for home. Rushing from far off the pace, he accelerated in one quick burst and charged into a perilously shrinking hole on the inside. It was a suicide squeeze, and that he survived at all was miraculous. Caveat bounced off the rail twice, like a billiard ball, and then a tiring and intimidated Au Point bumped into him, yet Caveat and Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. managed to fight their way through the strait, collaring Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. and Slew o' Gold coming into the stretch and simply running away from them—iadiós, amigos!—through the last quarter-mile.
Caveat won by 3½ lengths, running the 1½ miles in 2:27[4/5]. That was far off Secretariat's record 2:24 flat, set 10 years ago, but nonetheless it was racehorse time. It was, in sum, an extremely game performance by both horse and rider, and one made even more memorable by the gathering later in the winner's circle.
That was, in a sense, a happy reunion, with Stephens greeting Pincay as he approached on horseback, just as he did a year ago, when the horse was Conquistador Cielo. "The feeling is super," said Pincay, who had spent a professional lifetime, until last year's Belmont, seeking to win a 3-year-old classic. "After all those years of trying to win one, and then I win two."
Even the horse, in a way, shared in the reunion. Caveat is a son of Cannonade, the winner of the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974. Stephens trained Cannonade. Cannonade finished third in the Belmont Stakes that year, beaten by Little Current, but now his best son had won the race in his turn. "Ain't that sweet?" Stephens said.
And then Stephens wrapped an arm around one of Caveat's three owners, August Belmont IV, and guided him into the celebration. "Here's my man," Woody said. "We won the Belmont Stakes for the Belmonts!"
It had been a long time between Belmonts for the Belmonts. August IV, 74, is the great-grandson of August I, the 19th-century financier who won the 1869 Belmont Stakes with Fenian, and after whom Belmont Park was named by his son, August Belmont II, when August II founded the racecourse in 1905. The family has owned or bred nine Belmont Stakes winners, most notably a chestnut colt named Man o' War, but August IV is the first Belmont to race horses on the flats since 1924, the year August II died.
"My God, I can't believe it!" said August IV, a retired investment banker. "I'd never run in a Belmont. I've been here to give away the Belmont Cup, but never to myself. I really didn't follow the horses particularly. I was never in it until 1976." That was when Belmont bought a half interest in an unraced yearling named Quadratic from breeder Jim Ryan. In Stephens' care, the colt became a multiple stakes winner, and Belmont was quite definitely in the game.
Two years ago Belmont agreed to buy into another Ryan yearling, but when Belmont and his wife, Louise, a longtime horsewoman, visited the yearling at Ryan's Ryehill Farm in Mount Airy, Md., she saw a son of Cannonade, out of Cold Hearted, and liked him much better. She urged her husband to buy part of him instead. Ryan owned that colt jointly with Bob Kirkham, a Long Islander in the lumber business. Ryan asked Kirkham if he wanted to let Belmont in. "Whatever Augie wants, Augie's got," Kirkham told him. So they each now own a third.
Kirkham named the colt after he and his wife heard Alexander Haig, then the Secretary of State, give a speech on television. "He kept using the word 'caveat,' " Kirkham recalls. "We didn't know what it meant, so we looked it up." In Latin it means "let him beware," as in caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). About this time, they were naming their young horses, so Barbara Kirkham suggested Caveat for the Cannonade colt.
Caveat was handy as a 2-year-old, winning three of 11 races and $133,432, but all his wins were on the grass. He was erratic coming to hand at three in Miami, running good and bad. "He was unhappy in Florida," Stephens says. He was fractious going to the races. "We'd take him to the paddock and he'd get all lathered up," says Ron McKenzie, his exercise boy. "A little uptight." It wasn't until Stephens shipped him to Hot Springs—where in the Arkansas Derby Caveat finished second to Sunny's Halo, the eventual Kentucky Derby winner—that the colt settled down to business.
And nearly in time to win the Kentucky Derby. A week after bounding off the pace to win the Derby Trial, Caveat got carried wide on the turn for home in the Derby and finished third, beaten by 2¼ lengths. Stephens skipped the Preakness to give him a breather, and he won an allowance race at Belmont by three. The colt shone like new straw. "You always have a funny feeling going a mile and a half for the first time," Stephens said. "You worry: Will he hang? Will he go on? How good is Sidney's horse [Slew o' Gold]?" Slew o' Gold had won the nine-furlong Peter Pan on May 29 by 12 lengths in 1:46⅘ fast time, but the Belmont track that day was as quick as it has ever been, so what did the clock really mean?
Irrepressibly, Woody continued to be Woody. He and his wife, Lucille, were walking through the clubhouse the week before the Belmont when they passed a gallery of pictures of past winners arranged in chronological order. Pointing to Conquistador Cielo's photo, Stephens said, "That'll be nice when I put Caveat's picture next to this one."
Pincay showed up in the paddock in the Belmont family's scarlet and maroon silks, the same colors though a different design from those Fenian carried in 1869. The colt had carried Ryan's silks as a 2-year-old last year, but Ryan and Kirk-ham decided to ask Belmont to run the colt in his silks after Belmont had undergone triple bypass surgery in February. "Augie was down and we thought it would give him a boost," Kirkham says.
The Belmont Stakes certainly did. The race goes 12 furlongs, but only one really mattered on Saturday. Pincay lay 11th in the early running, while Slew o' Gold raced in a perfect spot, tracking the front-running Au Point down the backstretch and around the far turn. As they hit the last bend, Pincay quickly picked up ground along the rail, cutting into Au Point's lead.
They raced for the straight. Outside and behind Au Point, Cordero glanced back to his left and saw Caveat streaking to the large hole between Au Point and the rail. Now Cordero asked his horse to run. He bounded up next to the tiring leader. "I moved up to the horse [Au Point] on the outside to make sure he doesn't take me out," Cordero said later. As Caveat stuck his neck into the breach, Slew o' Gold reached Au Point and nudged him. Au Point, who was now staggering, ducked left, closing the hole. It seemed, for an instant, as if Cordero had decided to move the race onto the turf course. Au Point bounced off Caveat, who caromed off the fence, back into Au Point, then off the fence again.
"I was already in there," Pincay said. "There was plenty of room, then it just closed. I thought, 'I blew another one!' In the Kentucky Derby, I came around and someone took me way out. This time I went inside and someone shut me off." And then, just as quickly, it was all over. Pincay strapped Caveat lefthanded, and he shot to the lead and pulled away, obviously the best horse. Stephens later fumed, calling foul on Cordero, but Cordero pleaded innocent. The stewards reviewed the tapes, and left Slew's number in second, suggesting that Au Point was equally to blame for the contact.
By the time Caveat had cooled out, it appeared that Stephens had, too. Leaving the clubhouse with Lucille, he passed that gallery of pictures again and, with his hands, he framed the space next to Conquistador Cielo's. "Now to put another picture right beside this one is pretty sweet," he said.