Woody Stephens, the 70-year-old horse trainer, was musing aloud, holding an empty glass in one hand and leaning slightly forward in his seat. "So I went to New York in 1944 and never looked back," he said.
"Would you like another drink?" the stewardess asked.
"I feel grateful for everything I've had," Stephens began anew. "I left the farm as a country farm kid. I was lucky enough to meet Lucille, a nice girl, a good girl, and we've gotten along for 46 years.... I did everything I wanted to do. I rode horses; I trained horses. I never trained for nobody I couldn't train for again. I still feel good. I'm happy. I can't wait to get on that pony in the morning and go out on that racetrack and watch those horses train! I think I've called the shots pretty good on these horses. I think I've done good by them; I think they've done good by me. If I could turn my life around, there's no way I'd turn it. I wouldn't change a thing."
March 5, 1984
It was late afternoon of a day in early February, and Stephens was flying from Fort Lauderdale to New York to accept his first Eclipse Award, the horse racing industry's Oscar, as the American trainer of the year for 1983. He earned it chiefly for training the 1984 Kentucky Derby favorite, the undefeated Devil's Bag, and Miss Oceana, the top-weighted 2-year-old filly in the Experimental Handicap.
Devil's Bag himself had won the Eclipse as the nation's leading 2-year-old colt, extending Stephens' phenomenal string of consecutive champions. The Bag, as Stephens often calls him, was the trainer's fifth Eclipse champion in five years, following Smart Angle (1979), Heavenly Cause (1980), De La Rose (1981) and Conquistador Cielo (1982). In his first race of this year, on Feb. 20 at Hialeah, Devil's Bag, with Eddie Maple riding, won by seven lengths, clocking an impressive 1:21[3/5] for seven furlongs. Stephens will launch The Bag's serious campaign this Saturday when he saddles him to take on Dr. Carter and Time for a Change, both exceptional colts in their own right, in the 1‚⅛-mile Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah.
What is so striking about Stephens' stable of 25 horses at Hialeah this year is its depth of proven talent. Aside from the Bag and Miss Oceana, who'll be making a run at the filly Triple Crown, Stephens trains three other 3-year-olds who have won stakes: Swale, Vision and Morning Bob. "I've got a bench backing up The Bag," he says. And he has: Sabin, who has won six stakes races on grass, and a fine older filly, Quixotic Lady, who won the 1983 Monmouth Oaks.
The market value of Stephens' stable is probably between $80 and $100 million. Devil's Bag already has been syndicated for $36 million. Stephens figures that Swale, a son of Seattle Slew, is worth at least $14 million. To the enterprise of getting these bluebloods fit to run, Woodford Cefis Stephens brings a nearly childlike sense of spontaneity and enthusiasm that has propelled him for years.
"I have enjoyed the game so!" he says. This is the Stephens, a man basically unchanged through the decades, who in 1950 wore an expensive new felt fedora—fitted for him by Cavanaugh, the swank haberdasher—to the winner's circle at Belmont Park after his two-horse entry of Away Away and Iamarelic ran first and third in the Cowdin Stakes. It had been pouring and his fedora was drenched as he bounced exuberantly into the winner's circle. Someone yelled, "Hey, Woody, you've ruined your hat." He grabbed it off his head and flipped it over the fence to the crowd.
"I only wear 'em once anyway!"
The winner's circle is familiar territory to Stephens. In New York, for years the toughest of racing circuits, he has won more than 230 stakes, more than any active New York trainer. Enshrined in racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga in 1976, Stephens has done every job a horseman can do on the racetrack. "I was a hot-walker, a groom, a jockey, an exercise boy, a stable foreman and an assistant trainer," he says. "What the hell, I had to learn something."
Stephens began on his own in New York in 1944, training mostly selling platers for an astute professional horseplayer, Jule Fink. He later went on to work for an old friend of Pancho Villa's, Royce Martin, then for members of The Jockey Club, including Harry F. Guggenheim of Cain Hoy Stable, Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm and James P. Mills, the owner of Devil's Bag. He has trained some of the best and fastest horses of their day: Blue Man, Bald Eagle, Never Bend, Bless Bull, Heavenly Body and all those Eclipse winners.
Seven days a week Stephens is up a little after 5 a.m. and at the barn by six. "I'm not three minutes either side of that," he said. "I've been going hard for 55 years."
Now the plane was about to land in New York, and Stephens was reflecting again. "I know there's not too many years left," he said. "How long can I go on? Lucille says to me, 'Why don't we travel?' But that's what I've been doing all my life! What am I going to do more exciting than what I'm doing now, training Devil's Bag? It's exciting. But how long can I last? I'm lucky enough now. The owners I've had. All these breeding rights to stallions I've trained—Conquistador, Devil's Bag, Danzig. Those studs will outlive me! But I'm holding on."
One recent afternoon at Hialeah, Stephens had said, "And I'll always remember that morning at Havre de Grace racetrack, when we worked those two horses in the dark in the rain."
Woody didn't say this so much as mutter it, as if in a moment of free association, between something he had just said and something he was about to say. It seemed at the time a line too quick and lovely to chase, something best left alone, a metaphor that somehow expressed a sense of the poetry, chance and excitement of life as he had lived it on American racetracks since he was a boy.
It suggested a daguerreotype of what was in his mind. You know.... It rained one early morning in Maryland, at Havre de Grace, and Woody sped through it, in the dark, flat out around the turn, a very young man hunched over the back of a horse that's no longer alive, on a racetrack that no longer exists—the horse breathing hard, his hooves striking and splashing beneath him, the wind and water in the rider's face and the horse carrying him very fast through the stretch toward home, to wherever.
"It's been a long road," Stephens said, on the ground again, "and I have a lot to talk about."
It was Jan. 15, 1931, and Stephens was sitting on a filly named Directly, stepping to the barrier for the sixth race at Hialeah over a mile and 70 yards. He weighed 85 pounds and was 17 years old, working for trainer John S. Ward, and the horse was $17.85 to 1. On his way out of the jocks' room, Stephens had given Dick Meade, a valet, $20 to bet for him on his filly, and Meade almost booked the bet, sticking the $20 in his pocket, but then thought again and made the bet.
They left the barrier, the start good. Stephens let Directly open up a length going to the first quarter, then two as she came to the half-mile mark. She rated kindly for him down the back side and then Rosevolt challenged, but Directly shook Rosevolt off around the far turn and was two in front again at the eighth pole. Now June Moon ranged up and cut the lead, and Stephens rode as hard as he could toward the wire, whipping and driving. Directly was tiring. June Moon came to her, but a nip too late. Directly won it by a nose. Woody had broken his maiden, won his first race.
"I rode into that winner's circle," he said.
Directly paid $37.70, making Stephens $357 on his bet, and back at the barn he was full of himself. He led the filly around the walking ring to cool her out and then gave her to the groom. Booty Taylor, the stable foreman, said to Stephens, "Now get out there and rake that walking ring!"
"But I'm a jockey now," he protested.
Booty snorted. "You may be a jock in Mr. Ward's book, but you're still a punk in mine."
Stephens was born in Stanton, a little town in the Kentucky hills, on Sept. 1, 1913, when the nearby Bluegrass country was developing into the thoroughbred breeding capital of America.
Stephens lived in Stanton for 10 years, until his father, Lewis, and his mother, Helen, moved the family—Woody has three younger sisters, Jane, Anne and Mary, and a younger brother, Bill, himself a trainer—to a farm just outside of Midway, a hamlet where mules pulled wagons over rutted dirt roads and a railroad passed through. His father was a tenant farmer, sharecropping the land, growing tobacco, raising a few pigs and cows. The boy grew up on the backs of the mules that pulled the hitch that plowed the fields.
"It was hard work on that farm," Stephens remembers. "I can still see that milk bucket bouncing off my father's leg at five in the morning on his way to the barn to milk those cows. Then going to those fields to work. My mother would be up at 4:30, fixing breakfast. He'd be in the fields at six, driving those mule teams. I hoed tobacco for 50 cents a day. I worked all day, from when you can't see till when you can't see."
Woody rode three miles to school on his pony, Bill. One morning he came to a fork in the road and a black man was hanging by a wire from a tree. They said he had broken into a warehouse holding barrels of whiskey and killed the night watchman. The Klan took him out of jail and lynched him. "We were walking right under him going to school," Stephens says.
Stephens went to school until February 1929, halfway through his freshman year of high school, when he skipped to join the racetrack, under John Ward. There he befriended John's son, Sherill, who many years later would train Summer Tan, conqueror of Nashua, and the great Forego. "I came to the racetrack to be a rider," Stephens says. "I never dreamed of being a trainer."
Stephens was never, as he complained to Booty Taylor, a jockey now. Oh, he did win on Directly that first time out at Hialeah, but he was awfully light at 85 pounds and, always small and delicate as a child, not strong. In fact, a week after Directly broke his maiden for him, Stephens rode her again, lost the lead inside the eighth pole, finished second and got censured by the official chart caller, who wrote: "Directly...was under restraint to the stretch, but her rider was of little help to her at the finish." One day Stephens finished second on a horse called Brandon Dare. Afterward, the horse's trainer, Frank Bray, was asked if he wanted to switch riders next time.
"Put him back on the horse," Bray said. "I want to see if he can ride him that bad again."
Stephens did win one more race, and he and one of the rival jocks, Joe Bollero, still laugh about it 53 years later. Bollero was fighting weight at the time, and money was getting tight in the Depression. It was a rough-and-tumble business on the racetrack. Joe had bet his entire fortune, all of $300, on his mount in the sixth at Hialeah on Jan. 28, 1931, a filly named Watch Girl who was better than she looked. She was almost 10-1; Stephens, on Directly again, was 8-5. Figuring that Directly was the one horse he had to beat, Bollero approached Stephens in the jocks' room, showed him three $100 win tickets on Watch Girl and said, "Why don't you take a ticket and make a little money?"
Stephens recoiled. He was a young man fresh off the farm and riding a horse for his boss. He said no thank you. Instead, he rolled to the lead, heard friends yelling to him from the backstretch fence—"Go on with her, Woody!"—looked back as Joe tried vainly to catch him on the turn and then yelled, "How much you want to give me now, Joe?"
And Stephens went on with her. Directly won by a head from Madelon, and Watch Girl faded to third. As they pulled their horses up, Joe looked over at Woody and yelled, "I reduced for a week to ride this sonuvabitch. I don't have to worry about that now. I don't have anything to eat with!"
It was the last race Stephens ever won. He struggled for a couple of years, but to no avail. Ward finally broke the news. "If you have a future in racing," he said, "it's in training, not riding." Says Stephens, "When he saw I wasn't going to make it as a rider, he didn't give up on me. He always liked me. He wanted me to make it. He could have let me go. I don't know what would've happened to me if he had." Anyway, Ward didn't, and five years after Woody had ridden his last winner, racing had itself W.C. Stephens, trainer.
That was in the spring of 1936, when Stephens was galloping a fast horse of Ward's named Deliberator and took him to the old Latonia racetrack in Covington, Ky., to campaign. "Put your name [as trainer] on the program," Ward told Stephens. "It could do you some good." So it was that he saddled his first winner on June 18, 1936, in the sixth race at Latonia; Deliberator beat Crowning Glory by a neck. "Trainer: W. Stephens."
He was officially a horseman. But it wasn't until eight years later, in the summer of 1944, that Stephens really earned the title. After leaving Ward in 1937, the year he married Lucille, Stephens went on his own for a spell, then hooked up in 1940 with a crusty old trainer named Steve Judge, who asked him to take his promising 3-year-old, Our Boots, to Hot Springs, Ark. to train for the 1941 Kentucky Derby. Woody jumped at the chance, and three months later brought Our Boots to Kentucky to defeat Whirlaway in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Judge was a character. "He was a street player out of Oakland, California," Stephens says. "Slept at the barn a lot. He never believed in a necktie. At night he cooked a pot of beans. If he won a race, he'd throw out the beans and put on a chicken. He could train horses to go long and short. Tough and mean on a horse, but no one ever said he wasn't a good horseman. Mr. Judge was a tough, tired old horseplayer. But he had a way. When he put in a good word for you, people listened."
In 1942, when Judge heard there was an opening for an assistant to trainer Ross Higdon at the Woolford Farm, he had Woody dress up in a coat and tie and took him over to the box of Woolford Farm's owner, Herbert J. Woolf. Woolf was at the track with Ginger Rogers that afternoon. Judge recommended Stephens for the job, and he was hired. "Woolf was a big clothing man out of Kansas City," Stephens says. "Knew the big Hollywood types. He had something to do with Jean Harlow coming to Hollywood. For as long as I knew him, until he died [in 1964], he always sent me for Christmas six ties, six shirts and a light raincoat."
Stephens worked for Woolf and Higdon for only two years. Higdon wasn't much. "He had a big stable, but all his horses were sprinters," Woody says. "They couldn't get a route. He was a big feeder. His horses all carried a lot of weight. He chewed tobacco and had ulcers. He was a Sunday trainer—you know, easy on his horses. His horses were soft."
Stephens was going to school then, totally immersed in his profession. But the real school, the one that would make the most difference, was only about to open. Jule Fink was a professional horseplayer out of Cincinnati who, in 10 days at age 20 in 1933, had parlayed 10¢ in carfare his mother had given him into $30,000, mostly by betting the horses at poolroom books. Compared to today's more sophisticated handicapping methods. Fink's ideas were primitive, but they worked. He developed his ideas by studying racing charts. He loved horses with speed.
"I found the largest percentage of horses won on the lead," Fink says. "Whenever I was sure a horse would go to the lead, I'd bet on him. People are speed-conscious now. They weren't in those years. Trainers trained for classic distances...." He later discovered other wrinkles, new patterns to bet. "You'd get good prices on horses that had speed going a distance and then were turned back to six or seven furlongs. People thought going a distance dulled their speed. But I found these horses would run stronger at the finish going short."
What Fink then did was turn from horseplayer to owner-horseplayer, figuring he could use his handicapping expertise as a buyer and seller of horses. And in 1944, offering 15% of all winning purses and $1,000 a month in salary while promising to bet for him on good things, Fink sought Stephens as his trainer. Stephens couldn't resist. He had $400 to his name, and this gave him a chance to race his own stable in New York.
"I'm a bettor," Fink told Stephens flat-out. "You're not going to win 'em all, but you've got to win some." Fink and his followers came to be known in New York as the Speed Boys, the most exciting racing phenomenon to hit the state in years.
What Stephens learned from Fink was how to handicap a race, where to spot a horse best, how to evaluate the way a race is coming up. "When I went with Jule there were some of the fine things I needed to know," he says. "What makes 'em win and what makes 'em lose? He taught me how to claim horses, how to place horses, how to pace horses. He taught me how to stretch out a horse's speed. Jule was the best handicapper around, without question. There are a lot around now who know the tricks. But you could make so many beautiful claims in those days."
Fink and Stephens decided to race in California that winter of 1945 and had just shipped 18 horses out there when, because of the war effort, racing was suspended in the U.S. They decided to stay in California. The suspension was actually a blessing, for it gave Stephens a chance to freshen his weary horses for the coming spring. "We'd go under those orange groves," he says, "and pick grass that was just like celery that horses love, and they would chomp on that until juice would come out of their mouths."
They left in the spring of 1945 on the California Limited out of Los Angeles, two carloads of horses heading back to New York. They were sidetracked by troop trains heading west—the war was almost over in Europe, but not in the Pacific—and by the Super Chief. "She could roll!" Stephens says. They idled in Chicago and Stephens stepped off the train and wandered through the station—and into a new age. "In the station, a radio was saying that Franklin Roosevelt had just died."
May 21 was opening day at Jamaica. Fink was the handicapper, Stephens the horseman. "Woody had his antennae out all the time, very receptive," Fink says. "He had a great eye for a horse and a great touch. A physical touch with a horse. He'd kneel next to a horse and touch and feel around and immediately know where the problem was. He knew when to back off and go on."
That spring and summer Fink bet with both fists—between $500 and $2,000 on a horse—and Stephens mostly went on. It was a delirious time for the Speed Boys. Tarpan, claimed for $4,500 the year before, wins the sixth race on opening day, bounding to the front and leading at every pole.
"He was worth $4,500, wasn't he?" Stephens cries today.
Saguaro wins the Excelsior Handicap, leading every step of the way, and then Tarpan wins again, in front from first call to finish. Next, His Jewel opens a four-length lead, widens that to eight, wins by seven. Adelphia chases his stablemate, Timgad, jumps on him at the turn for home and wins by five, paying $15.70. "What did I tell ya?" laughs Stephens. "I claimed him for $5,000! And Fink bet!"
They were all winners for Stephens and Fink that year. Herodotus and Wise Admiral, K. Dorko and Ringoes, White Wine and Old Grad, too. "The show was on the road," Stephens says. "We'd win and run down to the winner's circle."
"We had a ball," says Fink.
It culminated at Belmont Park on Aug. 30, when Stephens saddled three winners on the card—Huntsman ($11.70), First Gun ($16.30) and Herodotus ($8.50). "What a day for the Speed Boys!" Stephens rejoices yet today.
But there was trouble, too. They had won 28 races since opening day, cleaned up at the windows, and increasingly there was talk that there was some kind of larceny at work here. "It was a joke," Stephens says. "There was a lot of jealousy." No specific charges were ever made against them, but that winter racetracks in Miami and California denied them stalls, and they were forced to stay in New York, unable to race at all.
"I've gotten to the point where I'm almost scared to win and scared to lose," Stephens complained at the time to John B. Campbell, the New York racing secretary. "If I lose, we're cheating; if I win, we're winning a big bet. A lot of talk."
If it ever occurred to the racing establishment that the Speed Boys simply might be playing the game smarter than everyone else, it wasn't enough to ease the pressures on them. They continued to race in New York during the spring and summer of 1946, but when it became clear they'd have to spend another winter in the north, unable to get stalls in the sun. Fink decided to sell his horses. He was eventually barred as an owner by The Jockey Club, which alleged that he associated with bookies; Fink launched a successful suit against The Jockey Club and later regained his owner's license.
Fink had bought the horses for about $50,000, mostly in claiming races. When he sold out, he says, they brought about $300,000. Fink figures that, through betting, purses and the sale of the horses, he made about $1 million in two years. Stephens came to the outfit with $400 and figures he left with $70,000.
A year after Fink sold out, Stephens went to work for Royce Martin, who headed Auto-Lite, a company that sold electric automotive equipment, and bred horses at Woodvale, his Kentucky farm. Martin had owned Our Boots, the colt that Stephens had helped Judge to get in shape for the 1941 season. Like Fink, Martin loved to make bets, and Woody was his man.
In June 1950, one of Martin's 2-year-olds, Iamarelic, worked a half mile in a blistering 46 seconds. The clocker missed the workout and Woody grinned, knowing a good thing when he saw it. Iamarelic was a nice horse who was coming around. So Stephens put him into a $10,000 claiming race at Aqueduct on June 19, a $2,500 jump in class from his previous start, despite sensing he was worth a good deal more than that.
Then he let out the word that Iamarelic had recently tried to bolt—that is, while working on the rail, he had tried to make a run for the outside fence. A bad character. Not true, of course, but there's nothing wrong with keeping a good thing secret on the racetrack. Iamarelic was ready to hum, and Stephens wanted to keep it quiet, diverting any interest from him. The horse had broken badly his last time out, so Stephens picked Ovie Scurlock, a good gate rider, as the jockey. Scurlock's agent, concerned about word that the horse had bolted, came by and asked, "How bad is this horse?"
"He warns you before he bolts," Stephens said. Scurlock's agent wouldn't be betting on him or telling anyone else to.
Stephens went to Scurlock's trailer and told him, "Ovie, you can ride this horse with a halter! Believe me." Which is to say, he really will run. Actually, off that half in :46, he'll fly.
"Bet me $200 on him," Ovie said.
He put $1,500 on Iamarelic. "Biggest bet I ever made in my life," he says. "I was sure he was going to win." Of course, Martin bet, too. Out of the gate well, Iamarelic opened a quick length lead, a hummingbird going for the nectar. Then three lengths. Then five. He won by eight. Scurlock made $760, Stephens $5,700. "That's a pretty good bet for a country boy," he says. Lord knows what Martin bet and made. "You're playin' the game like it should be played," Woody says. "It was fun."
Martin had unwittingly played a crucial role in Stephens' career as a trainer. In the summer of 1951, Martin's former trainer, Judge, had a 2-year-old named Blue Man that he'd run for a $12,500 claiming tag. The colt had finished 10th. Judge was nearing 80, old and sick, when Martin saw him and urged him to give the horse to Stephens, telling Judge to go to Hot Springs and convalesce in the baths. "Steve liked those baths," Woody says. "So he come to me the next day with Blue Man in his right hand and the feed tub in the other." Off he went.
The colt bloomed that fall, winning two allowance races and finishing second in a stakes. Stephens had himself a race horse. The next year, he won the Flamingo Stakes with him and finished third in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, Blue Man won the Preakness. "That's the first real classic I ever won," he says. "That was the beginning of me." In fact, he still has the gold money clip, engraved with his initials, that A.W. Abbott, the horse's owner, gave him to commemorate the occasion.
In 1956, Stephens accepted a proposal made by Guggenheim, the philanthropist and naval aviator: $50,000 a year and 20% of all profits. No commissions on purses. Stephens asked what it cost to run the stable, and Guggenheim told him $450,000 a year.
"So I went to work," Stephens says.
For the first time in his life, Stephens had himself a barn full of horses with royal pedigrees. He developed and trained his share of fast horses for Cain Hoy, and among the first was the winner of the 1959 Matron Stakes, Heavenly Body. There was also Make Sail, winner of the 1960 Alabama, and Never Bend, one of the fastest of his generation. But it was with two castoffs from England that Stephens did his most notable work.
One was Iron Peg, though when Stephens got him from the the English they were calling him Iron Pig. He arrived as a 4-year-old maiden in 1964, but by the end of the year he had won four out of five and beaten Kelso in the Suburban Handicap. Bald Eagle was the other. A failure in Europe, he became a handicap star in America. He's still the only horse ever to win consecutive Washington D.C. Internationals. He won the Suburban at four. At five, he won the Metropolitan Mile in 1:33⅗ a track record.
In 1959, the year Bald Eagle won $278,357, Cain Hoy Stable earned $742,081. That Christmas, Guggenheim's chauffeur arrived at Stephens' front door and delivered a smoked turkey, a check—it was for $75,000—and a card, with a message from Guggenheim: "We've had a good year, but we don't rest on our laurels...." To Stephens, that was classic Guggenheim: "The captain, you know, never looked back."
They parted in 1965, amicably, and for a while Stephens toyed with the notion of taking on just a few horses in a kind of semiretirement. He had some off years, for him, but by the early '70s he was back. His public stable, stocked by a wealthy clientele, was earning more than $700,000 a year in purses.
In 1974, he won the 100th Kentucky Derby with Cannonade, and since then has been turning up with runners by the handfuls, the champions aside. He has won two Belmont Stakes in a row, with Conquistador Cielo in 1982 and Caveat last year, and those fillies have kept coming to hand for him, one after another: Sensational, White Star Line, Terpsichorist, Number, Trove, Smart Heiress, Dame Mysterieuse, Bemissed.
Now there is this colt, the one standing in Stall 48 at Hialeah, coming to the door and pricking his ears as Stephens briskly approaches. Stephens stops and steps back for a moment. He smiles broadly, a 70-year-old kid, full of the nearly inexpressible wonder, the limitless possibilities, the way he was when he worked those horses at Havre de Grace in the dark in the rain.
"That's The Bag!" he says. "Look at him! Doesn't he look grand? A big, grand looking horse. Look at this horse. You never see a rib showing. He's a perfect horse to train. You can do anything you want with him. In all my life, he's the best I've had."