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A Sweet Belmont for Eddie Maple : Creme Fraiche’s Win Lets Woody Stephens Make History

Times Staff Writer

Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., may have difficulty getting the whip Eddie Maple used to win the $512,900 Belmont Stakes with Creme Fraiche at Belmont Park Saturday. When Creme Fraiche and Maple crossed the finish line, a half-length winner over stablemate Stephan’s Odyssey, the jockey underhanded the whip in the direction of Mars, and it fell to Earth, nobody knows not where.

Maple was entitled to that reckless display of exuberance. This is the jockey who suffered cracked ribs and a punctured lung in a spill the day before the 1982 Belmont, with Laffit Pincay flying in from California and winning the race aboard Conquistador Cielo as Maple’s substitute.

This is the same Eddie Maple who thought Chumming was the best 3-year-old in trainer Woody Stephens’ barn in 1983, and Pincay wound up riding Caveat to another Belmont victory.

And it is the same Eddie Maple who opted to ride Devil’s Bag, the 2-year-old champion of ’83, in the ’84 classics, as Pincay took over Stephens’ Swale to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.

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One Belmont doesn’t even that score if your name is Eddie Maple, but Creme Fraiche’s surprising win had to be sweet for a couple of reasons: It helped make up for the three that got away and it came over Stephan’s Odyssey, a horse Maple had been taken off because the owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, wanted to penalize the jockey after he didn’t claim a foul following a third-place finish in this year’s Flamingo Stakes.

While this Belmont was compensatory for Maple, it was historical for Stephens, who became the first trainer in the 117 years of the race to saddle four consecutive winners. “It’s very tough to win two of these much less four,” Stephens said, “and I doubt if anybody will break the record.” Nobody was arguing.

Early in the race, Creme Fraiche was 10th and Stephan’s Odyssey 11th in the 11-horse field, but the good early fractions over a muddy but drying-out track caught up with Purple Mountain, Cutlass Reality and Chief’s Crown, horses who either had the lead or were close to the pace.

Stephan’s Odyssey finished 4 1/2 lengths ahead of Chief’s Crown, who became only the third horse in the Triple Crown series to be favored in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont and not win one of them. After Chief’s Crown, the order of finish was Fast Account, Important Business, Cutlass Reality, Purple Mountain, Southern Sultan, El Basco, Eternal Prince and Tank’s Prospect, the Preakness winner who broke down in upper stretch and suffered a pull in his right front suspensory ligament (just above the ankle) that left him lame.Tank’s Prospect will be retired to stud according to his owner Gene Klein.

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Creme Fraiche, earning $307,740 for his owner, Elizabeth Moran, a Philadelphian who bought him for $160,000 at a yearling auction, became the first gelding to win a Belmont. His time was 2:27 for the 1 1/2 miles, the fastest clocking since Affirmed’s 2:26 4/5 on a fast track in 1978, and he paid $7, $6.40 and $3.40 in front of a crowd of 42,593, smallest turnout for a Belmont since 1959.

Running as part of the Stephens’ entry, Stephan’s Odyssey’s place and show prices were the same as Creme Fraiche’s and Chief’s Crown, who went off at 2 to 1, paid $2.80 to show.

Overnight rain that continued most of Saturday morning probably contributed to the small crowd, but it had everything to do with Moran waking up with a smile.

“I jumped out of bed and said, ‘Oh, wow!’ Moran said. “I loved it. It’s unusual to get out of bed on a Saturday morning and see rain and love it, but I did.”

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Creme Fraiche--rich cream, the same name as his sire--thrives on muddy tracks. He won the first start of his life in the mud at Aqueduct last October and he won the Kentucky Derby Trial at Churchill Downs in sloppy going. The Belmont was his fifth win in 13 starts and increased his career earnings to more than $690,000.

Stephens kept Creme Fraiche out of the Derby, saddling Stephan’s Odyssey to run second to Spend a Buck, and didn’t run him again until the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park on May 27, when he lost by a neck to Spend a Buck. Spend a Buck won $2.6 million in bonus and purse money by taking the Jersey Derby, which because of its timing kept the Derby winner from running in either the Preakness or the Belmont.

“Eddie’s had a lot of tough breaks,” Stephens said of Maple. “I feel real good for him. It all came back for him today.”

Maple won the Belmont with a 53-1 shot, Temperence Hill, in 1980. “This one was much easier than that one,” the 35-year-old jockey said. “We beat a better field today. This horse ran a much stronger race than he did in the Jersey Derby.”

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Maple was unable to let pass that Creme Fraiche’s win was at the expense of Stephan’s Odyssey. “It’s that man’s (de Kwiatkowski’s) horse, and he can get whatever rider he wants,” Maple said, “but I felt bad when I lost the mount, because I don’t think I have to take a back seat to Pincay or anybody else. I don’t want to take anything away from Stephan’s Odyssey, but he got flat outfooted today, baby.”

In the stretch, Maple took the outside route with Creme Fraiche while Chief’s Crown tried to hold on away from the rail, and Stephan’s Odyssey attempted to close while next to the fence. Stephan’s Odyssey was passed by the winner near the furlong pole while Chief’s Crown, in between them, began to tire.

“My horse had trouble handling the track,” said Angel Cordero, who was riding Chief’s Crown after Don MacBeth was replaced after a second-place finish in the the Preakness. “He ran a good race, it was just that the other horses ran faster.”

Creme Fraiche was running freely, Maple not going to his whip until about the eighth pole. “A lot of times, this horse doesn’t have his mind on his business, but today he was entertained, he knew what to do. He probably had so much mud in his eyes that he didn’t worry about losing interest.”

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Pincay tried the same tactic that worked with Caveat in ’83, saving ground and squeezing through on the rail, but Saturday’s move was difficult for both horse and rider. Stephan’s Odyssey bounced off the fence, Pincay sustaining a hole in his left boot and a cut on his foot.

“I had trouble getting through,” Pincay said. “I bumped against the rail a little bit. Still, the horse was trying, but he couldn’t quite make it. He still ran a real good race.”

But not good enough to ward off Creme Fraiche. “Nothing will make up for those three Belmonts I missed,” Maple said. “But at least this is the first rung on the ladder.”

Stephens talked as though there will be more Belmonts in his future--all Maple, his stable rider, has to do is pick the right horse to ride. “I’ve got about 20 2-year-olds in my barn,” the trainer said. “We’ll find a couple for next year.”

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