Let's see if we can conjure up the perfect racing afternoon. Take a Saturday in mid-October at New York's Belmont Park, set the temperature in the 60s, spray the sky deep blue and allow fall's fingers to paint the leaves on the giant oak and maple trees orange and red. Put a gaggle of Jockey Club members and social pretenders in the paddock. Bring retired champions Forego and Kelso (who two days later would die of colic at Woodstock Farm in Maryland, where the 26-year-old gelding had been in retirement since 1966) back for cameo appearances, stir in top career money-winner John Henry and other splendid racehorses and let the fans bring up applause from deep in their hearts. That's a lot to ask for. Now all we need is a young horse, a handsome, undefeated one, a horse to build a dream on. Well, why not?
It was all there last Saturday at Belmont on an afternoon of two prestigious races—the $570,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the $237,000 Champagne Stakes. Slew O' Gold, the best son from Seattle Slew's first crop of runners, won the 1½-mile Gold Cup by three convincing lengths in a stakes-record 2:26[1/5] as three 3-year-olds finished in the first four positions in the race. An hour earlier Devil's Bag put up a bravura performance in winning the Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds by six lengths in the superb time of 1:34[1/5] for the mile, pinching [1/5] second off the Champagne record set in 1976 by, yep, Seattle Slew.
Which victory was more impressive? Well, Slew O' Gold's record was accomplished in a race that has been run at 1½ miles only 10 times; the Champagne has been raced at a mile since 1940. In any case, one of the two should be Horse of the Year, right? Maybe. To complicate matters, on Sunday at Toronto's Woodbine track, All Along, the 4-year-old filly, who had won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, won the $520,350 Rothmans International. Add one more candidate for Horse of the Year.
Slew O' Gold would be the runaway Horse of the Year by now but for a horrendous ride by Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. in the Sept. 24 Marlboro Cup. In that race Slew O' Gold looked like a sure winner at the head of the stretch, when Cordero took the horse wide to impede the progress of Bates Motel, the horse Cordero felt he had to beat to win. Slew O' Gold did indeed beat Bates Motel, but Cordero's move was so flagrantly incompetent that he left an acre of ground open and lost the race to Highland Blade, who was able to slide between Slew O' Gold and the rail. Thus, had Cordero merely ridden professionally, Slew O' Gold would have become the first horse ever to sweep New York's three major fall races, the Woodward, Marlboro and Jockey Club Gold Cup and would also have been able to claim for his owners the $1 million bonus that goes with such a feat. Instead, Slew O' Gold lost the $1 million and, perhaps, Horse of the Year honors by a neck.
In the Gold Cup, Slew O' Gold was in second place behind Bounding Basque after a mile had been run in 1:36[3/5]. By the top of the stretch, Slew O' Gold was in front by a length and widening, thus the late charge of Highland Blade was inadequate. Slew O' Gold has won only five of 12 starts this year, but as one of his 17 owners, Mickey Taylor, said Saturday, "We danced in the spring, in the summer and in the fall. That should count for something." All of Slew O' Gold's wins, though, have been accomplished at either Aqueduct or Belmont. His seven losses came at Tampa Bay Downs, Churchill Downs, Monmouth and Saratoga. Slew O' Gold will not race again until the spring; the writing and racing people who vote for Horse of the Year will have to consider just how much weight should be applied to Cordero's goof in the Marlboro.
The major disappointments in the Gold Cup were Play Fellow and John Henry, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Chris McCarron, John Henry's rider, said after the race, "On the far turn when I asked him for some run, he didn't react." Play Fellow acted up before being loaded into the gate and, as Jockey Pat Day said, "Maybe it's that time of the year. He had a long campaign." And a good one as well. Play Fellow is the only 3-year-old to have won four Grade I races in 1983; Slew O' Gold and Sunny's Halo have three each.
The Champagne was the first Grade I victory for Devil's Bag, and there will be more. Probably many more. He came out of the starting gate briskly, and after the first quarter-mile he was in command, moving away from the pack with nearly every big stride. The 11 other jockeys were hard at work trying to close the gap, but to no avail. Jockey Eddie Maple just sat quietly on Devil's Bag until the head of the stretch, then he moved the colt out toward the middle of the racetrack. "I took the slack out of my reins at the ‚Öú pole," Maple said. "There was no question from there."
The colt's trainer, Woody Stephens, was ecstatic. "He just takes the track," Stephens said. "He doesn't know what dirt in his face means. He's trained to do anything."
Near the end of August, Devil's Bag's owner, James P. Mills of Middleburg, Va., wrote a letter to Lucille Stephens, the trainer's wife, explaining that the colt got its unusual name from a televised adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. "You may recall the story," Mills wrote. "A new schoolmaster came to the village and was appalled by all the superstition among the villagers. As he entered his schoolroom the first day, he bumped his head on an evil-smelling sack hanging from the door lintel. He learned from the students that this little bag had great power and must not be removed, as the articles contained therein warded off misfortune from the school. The schoolmaster tore the bag down to illustrate the folly of yet another superstition. Immediately the wood stove in the middle of the room exploded and the school burned. One might deduce from all this that the devil's bag, as the sack was called, was a highly potent force with which to deal; and that's how the name came about for my Halo colt."
Devil's Bag is indeed a force to deal with. He may even be the force of the year.