The chant began, a warm and rich outpouring of affection, as he slowly wended his way down the main aisle leading through the box-seat section of Belmont Park. Not even the oldest habitués of this proudest and grandest of American racetracks could recall anything quite like it.
But, quite magically, it was happening: Trainer Woodford Cefis (Woody) Stephens, 72, was on his way to the winner's circle. Hands reached out, wrapped around his neck, embraced him, tugged at him, slapped him on the back and tousled his thinning gray hair. "You did it!" cried the teary-eyed president of the New York Racing Association, Gerard McKeon, hugging Stephens. "You really did it!"
"Impossible!" the winning owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, repeated over and over. "I can't believe it. Impossible!"
That's when the chant began. Stephens's head turned from the back-slapping rich in the box seats to the masses standing in a misting rain on the apron of the grandstand below. It was a moment rare and glorious. The tribute came from the common folks, the ultimate accolade to this man and his craft. Men in blue jeans and open-necked shirts and women in simple frocks and pantsuits stood staring, as if confronting some kind of monarch. And, 2,000 strong, these $2 bettors chorused: "Woo-Dee! Woo-dee! Woo-Dee!"
June 15, 1986
Turning, he stopped among the braceleted arms of the Social Register and, smiling grandly, waved to the blue collars beneath him. They chanted on and on. As he worked his way to the winner's circle, he gave high fives to every man and woman lining the way. This was their racetrack, this man their trainer, and the New York crowd expressed its feelings for him in a way perhaps unprecedented in horse racing in this town.
"You are the greatest, Woody!" one man cried, as Stephens walked by.
"Awesome, Woody!" said a second.
"We love you, Woody!" yelled another. "Five in a row! Go, go, go!"
Ah, yes. As the trainer of Danzig Connection, at 8-1 one of the longest prices on the board, Woody Stephens had just won his fifth Belmont Stakes in a row. Before Danzig Connection, Stephens had saddled Belmont winners Conquistador Cielo (1982), Caveat (1983), Swale (1984) and Creme Fraiche (1985). In the long history of horse racing, no conditioner of the blooded horse had come close to accomplishing such a feat.
Further, as Stephens will readily admit, Danzig Connection was the weakest of his five Belmont winners. The trainer was about to give up on the colt as a Belmont starter as recently as May 16, the day Danzig Connection grabbed the lead late in a one-mile allowance race at Belmont Park and then, inexplicably, deflated like a birthday balloon in the stretch to finish second. Stephens could not understand it.
To be sure, the colt had had his problems long before that. Last fall X-rays revealed a bone chip floating in his right knee. Arthroscopic surgery removed the chip, but the cutting took the colt out of training until Jan. 22. So Woody kissed off the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and aimed Danzig Connection for the Belmont—his race, you know, in his town.
Stephens had only three races to get the colt ready. In his first start since surgery, he finished third in an allowance race at Aqueduct on May 3, the memorable day that Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby under his 54-year-old jockey, Bill Shoemaker. Then followed the disappointing second at Belmont, when Danzig Connection coughed up the bit in the stretch. Nine days later, on May 25, Woody's colt came roaring back to win the 1‚⅛-mile Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. That was his ticket of admission to the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes.
Woody was cautious, though he was spitting on his hands and rubbing them together. "I don't have as good a chance this year as I had going into the other four," he said. "But my colt looks and acts good, and he's had only three races this year. He's a fresh horse. I have no idea whether he can go a mile and a half, but neither do the others."
The most engaging thing about this Belmont was that the trainers of three of the best horses were septuagenerians. There was Stephens, 72, and Charles Whittingham, 73, the trainer of Ferdinand, and the lovable Walter Kelley, 79, the trainer of a nice-looking colt named Johns Treasure.
Together, they are 224 years old.
Kelley was priceless. Asked if his wife would be at the race, he said, "She wouldn't come if she owned the horse. She just tolerates me, 'cuz I stink. She says, 'How can you get so dirty?' She's my fishing buddy. We've been married 53 years."
No one gave Woody much of a chance except Walter. "He's like a gun," Kelley said. "Liable to go off in anybody's hand."
And Charlie. "Woody's an old favorite around here," Whittingham said. "If anybody beats me, I'd just as soon Woody'd do it."
Woody and Charlie are the kings of East and West Coast racing, respectively. Stephens told the visiting Californian, "When you come across that Hudson River, Charlie, the buildings really get tall." Scratching his bald head, Charlie replied, "Woody still thinks there's cowboys in California. He don't know the cowboys are driving Cadillacs."
As it turned out, jockey Chris McCarron was driving the Cadillac on Belmont Day. Originally, Stephens's choice to ride Danzig Connection was Pat Day, but he opted for the favored Rampage, who finished seventh. Woody then wanted Laffit Pincay, but Laffit jumped on Johns Treasure, Walter's horse when he isn't fishing with the wife. So Woody called McCarron, the best jockey who had never won a Triple Crown race. McCarron rode Danzig Connection beautifully, hounding the pace for a half mile, taking the lead as he pleased and dashing off in the final eighth to win in the slop by 1¼ lengths over Johns Treasure, with Ferdinand a neck back.
So would you believe it? The three old men finished one-two-three. Woody chided Walter and Charlie to the end. "Did you two dirty old men think you could beat me?" kidded the youngest of the oldies. "Ha! I beatcha both!"
As is his style, Whittingham was the picture of grace in defeat. Visiting Stephens after the race, Whittingham embraced his friendly rival and posed for photographs. "If they ask you who the guy is with the tears in his eyes," Charlie told the photographer, "tell 'em it's Whittingham."
"Can you believe this?" Stephens said. "Five Belmonts in a row! Unbelievable, isn't it? Think that record will hold up?"
At least until next year. "I got 20 well-bred 2-year-olds in the barn," Stephens said with a smile. "I was going to retire this fall. I'm tired, but maybe now I'll stick around."