At a time when it appeared that everything was beginning to fall apart—when his very best 3-year-olds were getting horsewhipped and outrun one by one—suddenly there was Woody Stephens again, sitting high in the catbird seat on the way to the Kentucky Derby. Last Saturday that seat was in his room in the Westin Hotel in Cincinnati, where he watched on television as Swale, his game, resourceful bay colt, outraced Dr. Carter for the $180,000 first prize in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Stephens didn't attend the Florida Derby because he had chosen to saddle another fine 3-year-old, Vision, for the Jim Beam Stakes at Latonia Race Course the next day. (Vision finished seventh.)
"In all my life," the 70-year-old trainer said, "this is the first time I saw one of my horses win a race on television. Until now I'd saddled 'em all myself. But I enjoyed watching it, and it didn't surprise me a bit."
There had been a few surprises lately, of course, most of them grim. Just a month ago, Stephens was boasting, with good cause, that he had the best 3-year-old in America, the undefeated 2-year-old champion of 1983, Devil's Bag, and a bench as deep as Georgetown's to back him up, including Swale, Morning Bob, Dancing Crown and Vision. Then, in one of those stunning reversals of form that bewilder horseplayers and bedevil horsemen, the Stephens 3-year-old show seemed to go sour.
On March 3 the Bag, syndicated in December for $36 million, started looking for a hole in the fence on the turn for home in the 1‚⅛-mile Flamingo Stakes and ended up fourth, beaten by seven lengths. It was the shock of the winter racing season, and it led to suggestions that the world's most expensive racehorse now in training might, after all, be no more than a sprinter. Then Swale, on a four-race win streak, got tired in the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream and faded to third. Morning Bob also got his head handed to him, in the Tampa Bay Derby, winding up fifth. Three weeks ago, as if in the spirit of things, Stephens, while opening a shower curtain in his Miami home, accidentally pulled it down, rod and all, and broke two ribs and cracked a third as he fell.
"I couldn't sleep the last three weeks," Stephens said. "I'd turn on my side and almost scream."
As if not enough had gone amiss, the return of Devil's Bag to the races—the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, scheduled for last Saturday—was postponed until April 7 because of a severe storm earlier in the week. So Swale was just what the man needed, for it put him back on the front end in the final weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
"I don't know who the best 3-year-old in America is right now," said Stephens after the Florida Derby. "I still think Devil's Bag might be. We'll have to see. I just don't know. I'll tell you one thing: If it isn't the Bag, then it's Swale."
Swale certainly acted the part on Saturday. Last year, after winning three straight stakes by two noses and a head, he came to be regarded as one of the toughest and gamest of America's 2-year-olds, traits he no doubt inherited from his sire, Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown.
"I like a son of a gun who tries all the time," says Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, one of the colt's owners. "That's Swale. He gives you his all."
He did in the nine-furlong Florida Derby. Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. let Swale roll out of the gate, and in the first dash past the grandstand the colt was lapped on the outside of Darn That Alarm, while the favorite, Dr. Carter, lay just two lengths off the pace. After six furlongs in a fiery 1:10⅕ Pincay let out a tad on the reins and Swale came swiftly to Darn That Alarm's throat. In an instant Dr. Carter charged up on the outside, looking as if he would blow past both of them.
Darn That Alarm had whipped Swale two weeks before in the Fountain of Youth, but Stephens figured his colt hadn't been entirely fit then. Moreover, there was a strong suspicion that Swale had gotten his tongue caught over the bit, impairing his breathing. This time, Stephens ordered Swale's tongue tied down with a strip of cloth.
Of the three leaders, the only horse that was breathless on the turn for home was Darn That Alarm, who had resisted the others until he could resist no more. After he called it an afternoon, Dr. Carter raced to within a head of Swale, but Swale fought back. The two colts battled through the stretch, and with 220 yards to go Swale had a half a length on Dr. Carter. At the finish he had almost a length. Swale won in 1:47⅗ good time, and finished out fluidly enough, as if the extra furlong of the Kentucky Derby might not be unappealing to him.
This is a nice colt. He has a bold, arrogant way of carrying himself, just like his old man, who was one of the most conceited racehorses that ever lived. What is so particularly attractive about Swale is that he obviously likes a good fight, and there is no quit in him. Stephens is shipping him to Lexington, where he may meet Dr. Carter again in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 26. If Devil's Bag runs well in the Gotham, he'll go in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 21. The Kentucky Derby is May 5.
Once again Stephens has the favorite, though it's not the Bag. Still, Stephens says, "The Bag is back. He's been jumpin' out of his skin! You'll see."