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Stephens Has Two Chances to Win a Fourth Straight Belmont Today

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The name of the first man who trained three straight Belmont Stakes winners is so obscure that he is listed only as D. McDaniel in the Belmont Park media guide.

The intrepid Daily Racing Form found out that McDaniel’s first name was David, probably no easy researching task, since the trainer’s three in a row were 1871-73--the horses were Harry Bassett, Joe Daniels and Springbok--when the Belmont was just a tad of a race.

The 117th Belmont will be run today, and if it’s won by either Stephan’s Odyssey or Creme Fraiche, David McDaniel’s name will fade even more. Stephan’s Odyssey and Creme Fraiche are trained by Woody Stephens, who has won the last three Belmonts. If one of his horses wins today, Stephens will be the first trainer to have won four straight, and he isn’t likely ever to be referred to as W. Stephens in any track’s media guide. Stephens, 71, is so widely known that simply listing him as Woody would suffice.

Stephens had his first Belmont winner, Conquistador Cielo, in 1982. It is that victory that he treasures the most. Five days before the Belmont, Stephens sent the 3-year-old colt out against older horses to win the Metropolitan mile.

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“A lot of people were knocking me, running a horse on Monday, then bringing him back on Saturday in the Belmont,” Stephens said. “But as far as I was concerned, his win in the Metropolitan made him a cinch in the Belmont. I didn’t think he could lose that day, and he caught a sloppy track and loved it.”

Conquistador Cielo was the second betting choice behind Linkage, who had won the Preakness, but the race was no contest. Stephens’ horse won by 14 lengths over Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol. Linkage was fourth.

The depth of Stephens’ typically well-stocked stable has enabled him to win the Belmont twice more. In ’83, Chumming, a million-dollar yearling, was considered by Stephens to be his best 3-year-old, but the colt was injured in the Kentucky Derby and never ran again.

By Belmont time, Caveat carried Stephens’ hopes. Caveat beat the favorite, Slew o’ Gold, thanks to a true-grit ride by Laffit Pincay. Pincay squeezed Caveat through on the rail at the top of the stretch, keeping the horse together even though they bounced off the fence twice, and won by 3 1/2 lengths.

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Stephens never got the hang of saying Caveat’s name correctly. It was always ca-VEET , but they don’t pay off on pronunciation. “He was 100 yards the best,” Stephens said. “He took about 10 feet of the rail at the quarter pole and still won.”

Swale represented Stephens’ second string going into last year’s Belmont, the trainer having also had Devil’s Bag, the 2-year-old champion, in his barn. Stephens questions himself now about how he trained Devil’s Bag, because the horse never developed properly in Florida early in the year and was retired to stud a couple of days after leg problems prevented him from running in the Kentucky Derby.

Swale not only won the Derby, he laughed at the opposition in the Belmont and coasted home by four lengths in a wire-to-wire performance. “He had his own way and won big, just like the other two did,” Stephens said.

Eight days after the race, while Stephens was reading a newspaper at 6:30 a.m. in his car next to the barn at Belmont Park, Swale reared up after a gallop, collapsed and died.

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“He never had a sick day,” Stephens said, still unable to explain the death. “He ate his breakfast and had a warm bath. He fell on his right side and was gone. It happened in a second. The folks at New Bolton (the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinarian school) said they would call with an answer, but they never did.”

A stablehand called Jack McGuire, the veterinarian, as soon as Swale went down. “I got over there in 15 minutes, but he was already gone,” McGuire said. “His pupils were thick. If you had shot him with a gun, he wouldn’t have died that quickly.”

Coincidentally, Pincay has been aboard all three of Stephens’ Belmont winners and will ride Stephan’s Odyssey today.

Eddie Maple, who will ride Creme Fraiche, has been Stephens’ stable rider for several years. He suffered rib injuries in a spill the day before Conquistador Cielo’s Belmont, and Pincay was an 11th-hour replacement. The other two years, Maple chose to ride Chumming and Devil’s Bag, and Pincay picked up the leavings.

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If there’s such a thing as squaring the books, it would be appropriate that Maple pick up a Belmont win today, but Creme Fraiche is considered the weaker half of Stephens’ entry. The trainer didn’t decide to enter the smallish gelding until a few days ago.

“He deserves the chance,” Stephens said. “In his last seven starts, traveling around the country, he’s won one race and been second five times and made more than $300,000.”

Both of Stephens’ horses run from off the pace, which means they’ll probably be chasing Chief’s Crown and Eternal Prince at the end. Others in the 11-horse field are Preakness winner Tank’s Prospect, Southern Sultan, Fast Account, Purple Mountain, El Basco, Important Business and Cutlass Reality.


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