Soon after legendary trainer Woody Stephens won a record fifth
consecutive Belmont Stakes in 1986, the New York Racing
Association presented him with a wristwatch to commemorate his
string of winners. Stephens loved the watch. But mostly he loved
to use it to needle D. Wayne Lukas, a younger rival who was
Stephens's match in garrulousness, competitive fire and ego.
"See this watch," Stephens would say, smirking. "The only way
Lukas is going to get one is if I leave it to him in my will.
Five Belmonts in a row. Who's ever going to beat that?"
At the time the question seemed purely rhetorical. Stephens's
five-peat (with Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale, Creme Fraiche
and Danzig Connection) seemed as safe as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game
hitting streak. But now a certain trainer has won his third
straight Belmont. And--get a grip, Woody--it's Lukas, who has
won seven of the last eight Triple Crown races overall. You can
almost set your watch by him.
His latest score came last Saturday when a Belmont crowd of
40,797 was treated to a thrilling stretch duel between the
Lukas-trained Editor's Note and Preakness runner-up Skip Away.
After hooking up with Skip Away midway in the stretch, Editor's
Note, heretofore a shameless underachiever, dug in for the last
50 yards and pulled off to a one-length victory.
Entering the race the field of 14 was more notable for who was
not running than for who was. Missing were the Derby winner--the
Lukas-trained Grindstone, who was retired five days after his
victory at Churchill Downs because of a bone chip in a knee--and
the pre-Derby favorite, Unbridled's Song, who has been as
consistently mismanaged as Major League Baseball. Naturally,
anyone with a half-decent 3-year-old wanted a shot. Owner
Virginia Kraft Payson went to her European stable for South
Salem, who had never run on the dirt. The usually conservative
trainer Shug McGaughey entered a filly, My Flag, a
multiple-stakes winner who had earned more than $1 million, even
though no female had won the Belmont since 1905. "They've pretty
well mixed it up in the first two [Triple Crown] races this
year," McGaughey said. "I haven't seen a superstar yet."
June 16, 1996
The odds reflected that. The favorite, at a tepid 3-1, was
Cavonnier, who had been collared by Grindstone at the wire in
the Derby. But a bettor could get Preakness winner Louis
Quatorze at 6-1, My Flag at virtually the same price and Skip
Away at 8-1.
That Editor's Note went off as the 5-1 second choice was a
tribute to Lukas's unprecedented Triple Crown run. Off his past
performances Editor's Note was beginning to look more like a
classic sucker bet than a potential classic winner. He always
came from off the pace to hit the board. The problem was, he
never finished first. But no one was willing to count out a
Lukas horse, even though the two he entered in the Belmont,
Editor's Note and Prince of Thieves, had been disappointments in
both the Derby and the Preakness.
Going into the Belmont, Editor's Note had lost nine consecutive
races since he won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last Sept. 23 at
Turfway Park. Even William T. Young, who purchased him for
$125,000 at the 1994 Keeneland Select Yearling Sale, was having
doubts about ever taking Editor's Note to the winner's circle.
But the colt always made such strong late moves--in those nine
starts he had three seconds, three thirds and a fourth--that
neither Lukas nor Gary Stevens, his regular rider, would give up
on him. "Gary has never lost confidence in this colt," Lukas
said after Editor's Note finished third in the Preakness. "He
says he wants to stay on him because he's going to win one of
But Stevens aggravated a chronic left shoulder injury so badly
on June 5 that he was forced to sit out the Belmont. Lukas
initially called Corey Nakatani, the leading rider in
California, but Nakatani had too many commitments at Hollywood
Park. "I considered about five or six guys that I use," Lukas
said. He tried Rene Douglas, 29, a relative unknown from Panama
who had caught Lukas's attention because of his cool, calm
Douglas gave up his ride in Saturday's Cinema Stakes at
Hollywood Park and, with his agent, Tony Matos, began studying
tapes of every one of Editor's Note's races. Upon arriving in
New York on Thursday, Douglas had skull sessions with Lukas and
Stevens, who had flown in from California to be an analyst for
ABC. "I want to thank Gary Stevens," Douglas said after the
race. "He told me a lot of little things about the horse that
you couldn't see on the tapes."
There was plenty of speed in the Belmont field. The import,
South Salem, set a sizzling early pace (:23.45 for the quarter)
but quickly surrendered the lead to Appealing Skier, who in turn
was overtaken by a third long shot, Natural Selection, just
after they had gone a half mile in a very fast :46.95. In the
turn for home My Flag, who had been 13th in the early going, was
still working her way up, and the veterans of the first two
Triple Crown races--Cavonnier, Editor's Note, Louis Quatorze and
Prince of Thieves, all following the lead of Skip Away--were
positioning themselves for a final sprint.
As they headed down the stretch, jockey Chris McCarron pulled up
Cavonnier (who suffered a bowed tendon and was retired). By
then, though, everybody was watching Skip Away and Editor's Note
duel for the lead, five lengths ahead of the pack. At one point
the habitually belligerent Editor's Note seemed more interested
in taking a bite out of Skip Away than he did in winning.
"[Editor's Note] came close to the other horse, and he wanted to
hang a little bit," Douglas said.
"He wasn't hanging, Rene," Lukas said. "He wanted to go over and
take a little piece out of Skip Away. I said before the race
that if it's a street fight, a brawl, he's the one to beat."
There was no brawl, and no biting, but Editor's Note did finally
justify Lukas's confidence in him, though his time for the mile
and a half was an unexceptional 2:28.96, including a final
quarter in a plodding :26.8. Skip Away held on to second and My
Flag was third.
As dusk descended on Belmont Park, everyone in the winning camp
was happy, but for different reasons. Young, who also owns
Grindstone, had surprisingly won two thirds of the Triple Crown.
Douglas had his first victory in a Triple Crown race. Lukas had
another Belmont win and--who knows?--perhaps the beginning of a
new Triple Crown win streak. "We've got a beautiful set of
2-year-olds," Lukas said. "We're optimistic we can get something
Hear that, Woody? Tick, tick, tick. That may be a watch with
Wayne Lukas's name on it.