Woody Stephens sat in a golf cart next to Barn M at Hialeah the other morning and talked about retiring. Those who know Stephens best, among them his wife, Lucille, will tell you that it's just talk.
At 71, Stephens is not quite one of a kind--among major trainers, Charlie Whittingham is older by about five months--but he comes close.
Stephens' face has at least one wrinkle for each of the many important races he's won, which gives him the appearance of a relief map of South America. But he's not a push-button trainer, he's a show-up guy, and the only concession he makes to age is the golf cart he uses to drive from the barn to the track for his horses' workouts.
Asked how many horses he has, Stephens said: "I got 24 here and 24 in South Carolina, getting ready to run. But what I need is about none. I'm getting too old."
A year ago, he was a sick man, probably with walking pneumonia, but refused to go to the hospital until just before the Kentucky Derby. He got out just in time to watch Swale give him his second win in America's most prestigious race.
This year, Stephens has been in fine fettle, but many of his horses have been sick. One of them, Stephan's Odyssey, appears to have recovered from a skin rash that bothered him when he ran sixth in the Florida Derby March 2, and he should give a better account of himself in today's $265,000 Flamingo Stakes.
A horse needs to be 100% for this Flamingo, Florida's last significant race for Kentucky Derby aspirants, because the eight-horse field includes Chief's Crown and Proud Truth, generally considered to be the best in the country.
Stephens has been here before. He won his first Flamingo with Blue Man in 1952, four years after Eddie Maple, Stephan's Odyssey's rider, was born. Stephens won the race again in 1963 with Never Bend.
But he keeps coming back for more, this grizzled hardboot who began training in Kentucky in 1940 and made a permanent move to New York three years later.
Except for Whittingham, he has no equal in the United States. Robert Sangster, the Briton who has spent millions buying horses, calls Stephens the Vincent O'Brien of America. O'Brien is Europe's peerless trainer.
"I love to hear that," Stephens said. Then, only seconds after he talks about cutting back with his horses, Stephens gives reasons why he can't.
"I've got this man who's spent $30 million on broodmares," Stephens said, referring to Henryk de Kwiatkowski, who owns Stephan's Odyssey. "How am I going to walk out on him?"
Because of De Kwiatkowski and other appreciative owners, money will never be a consideration for Stephens. The trainer easily rattled off a list of 13 stallions to which he has lifetime breeding rights--Conquistador Cielo, Devil's Bag, Danzig, Smarten, Caveat, Believe It, Quadratic, It's True, Akureyri, Miswaki, Cannonade, Proudest Roman and Ginistrelli.
Conservatively, this fringe benefit represents about $750,000 a year for Stephens, who owns only four broodmares and sells to other breeders the access to the remaining nine stallions.
De Kwiatkowski, a Polish-born aviator who made his money selling airplanes, got into racing in 1976. Through a recommendation from E.P. Taylor, the Canadian who won the Kentucky Derby in 1964 with Northern Dancer, he hired Stephens as his trainer.
"If you hire Stephens, leave him alone," Taylor told De Kwiatkowski. "Give him the last word. He should know what he's doing."
There was a week in 1982 when De Kwiatkowski, despite being an inexperienced horseman, had to wonder. Stephens had won the Metropolitan Handicap with Conquistador Cielo and five days later was going to run the colt in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
"I told Henryk to wear his blue suit Belmont day, he was going to be in the winner's circle," Stephens said. He was right, too.
"You gotta take chances in this game," he said. "If you didn't take chances, I'd still be in Kentucky and Henryk would still be in Poland."
Maybe not Poland, according to De Kwiatkowski, but certainly not the winner's circle at Belmont Park. "I'd probably be in Siberia," De Kwiatkowski said.
De Kwiatkowski owns Danzig, who has sired both Chief's Crown and Stephan's Odyssey, because Stephens picked the colt out of a yearling sale for $310,000. Stephan's Odyssey is named after De Kwiatkowski's 13-year-old son.
"Tommy Wallis, a boy I rode a lot, won a race for Del Carroll with Pas de Nom, who was Danzig's dam," Stephens said. "That's what made me buy Danzig."
Danzig, because of a knee injury, ran only three races, winning them all. He is a 6-year-old and has a long stud career ahead of him, which is just another reason for Woody Stephens, racing's Ol' Man River, to keep rolling along.