By mid-October of most years, a person can draw up a relatively small list of horses, study their past performances and with some certainty pick the Horse of the Year. Quite obviously, 1983 is not an ordinary year. Each major race seems to produce a different winner—Sunny's Halo, Play Fellow, Slew o' Gold, Bates Motel, to name a few—casting more shadow than light on the situation and confusing everyone who tries to make an assessment of this year's runners. Should the trend continue—and nobody doubts that it will—the outstanding horse of 1983 could emerge from a very unlikely class: the 2-year-olds.
This Saturday afternoon the nation's racing fans will get their first televised look at one of the two outstanding 2-year-old candidates when Devil's Bag, undefeated in three races, runs in the $200,000 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, which is just before the $500,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. As recently as two weeks ago, 38 2-year-olds had been nominated to the Champagne, but the presence of Devil's Bag will scare most of them away, and only half a dozen are expected to start in New York's most important race for young horses.
Since 1936, when Granville was named racing's first Horse of the Year, only one 2-year-old has won the award: Secretariat in 1972. Why are 2-year-olds so rarely honored? Mainly because they race only against other 2-year-olds. For Devil's Bag to attain this year's award he will not only have to win the Champagne in impressive style, he will probably have to win at least two other major races as well, e.g., the Laurel Futurity on Oct. 29 and the Remsen on Nov. 12.
A further obstacle to Devil's Bag is another smashing 2-year-old who has outstanding credentials—a filly named Althea whose sire is Alydar. The two probably won't meet this year. Althea has won four races in five starts, including California's two most important 2-year-old races, the Hollywood Juvenile Championship and the Del Mar Futurity. Not only did Althea win those races by a total of 16½ lengths in very fast times, but she beat colts in both. After the Del Mar Futurity, Althea's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said, "You now have to include Althea in the outer circle among fillies." Lukas' circle includes the great fillies Landaluce and Ruffian. Lukas, it should be remembered, also trained Landaluce.
Listen now to what Woody Stephens, who trains Devil's Bag, had to say after the colt easily won the seven-furlong, $84,450 Cowdin Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 28: "I've been around racing for 51 years and I've never seen a 2-year-old run a 1:21[2/5]. And Eddie [jockey Eddie Maple] was all wrapped up on Devil's Bag. This is as good a 2-year-old as I've ever had."
Devil's Bag is a son of the 14-year-old stallion Halo, who stands at Windfields Farm near Chesapeake City on Maryland's Eastern Shore. At the beginning of '83, Halo stood for a stud fee of $30,000, but having sired both Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo and Devil's Bag, his fee is bound to skyrocket.
Devil's Bag made his first start on Aug. 20 at Saratoga and he went swoosh against eight opponents. Following the race, Stephens was asked, "What was that thing that you just ran?" The trainer laughed. "That thing," he said, "is a runner. He is some kind of a freak. I loved this horse from the first time he set foot on a racetrack. This winter when I went to Florida I took Devil's Bag along with me. No, it's not normal to take a 2-year-old to Florida in the winter because there are no races for 2-year-olds at that time of the year. But this colt was not going to get out of my sight. And, wait and see, he'll get better."
And Devil's Bag did. He won his second start by 5¼ lengths before outclassing his field in the Cowdin. Granted, the Champagne will be his first major test, but few doubt that he will pass it. If one might wonder about Devil's Bag's ability, Stephens sent his "second-string" 2-year-old, Swale, a son of Seattle Slew, to Keeneland last Saturday, and he won the $171,625 Breeders' Futurity.
At present, nobody would dare put a dollar value on either Devil's Bag or Althea. Lukas and Stephens are both masters when it comes to exciting the public about their horses. Should the 3-year-olds and older horses continue to be inconsistent, both trainers can be expected to campaign their 2-year-olds for Horse of the Year. Lukas blames himself for Althea's lone defeat, indicating that he had not trained the filly hard enough for her second start. Last week, Stephens looked on as Devil's Bag worked five furlongs at Belmont Park in :58, doing it almost effortlessly. The two horses will probably make three more starts each before being turned out for the winter, and the writers and racing officials who vote for the Horse of the Year will be paying close attention.