Belmont Stakes : Veteran Trainers to Play for High Stakes

Times Staff Writer

The 79-year-old Walter Kelley and the 72-year-old Woody Stephens, trainers who have horses running here Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, have been opponents off the track for years, the game being draw poker.

Kelley wonders why he keeps playing cards with Stephens. “Woody’s good at everything he does,” Kelley said of the Hall of Fame trainer. “He does a little drinkin’ when he plays cards, but that doesn’t hurt him none. He knows the strength of his own hands better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Stephens does not demur when told of Kelley’s accolades. The Wood Man, as Stephens is known around Belmont Park, recalls a poker session involving him and Kelley in Panama many years ago.

Stephens was dealt three fives and drew two cards.


After drawing, Kelley wound up with a full house, three aces on top.

There were raises and counter-raises, after which Kelley proudly showed his hand.

“Well,” Stephens said, enjoying every second of it, “all I’ve got is two little pair. But they’re both fives.”

Saturday, Stephens will be shooting for his fifth straight Belmont victory and, once again, he appears to have a better hand than Kelley. Stephens’ horse is Danzig Connection, fresh from a win in the Peter Pan Stakes over the same track about two weeks ago. Kelley has Johns Treasure, who with two wins in four lifetime starts has never appeared in a stakes race.


At the draw for post positions Thursday, however, Danzig Connection and Johns Treasure were both listed as 6-1 choices by the Belmont linemakers. That meant they were co-fourth choices, behind Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand at 9-5, Mogambo at 4-1 and Rampage at 9-2. All of the other starters in the 10-horse field are 10-1 or more.

Here is the Belmont field in post-position order:

Fobby Forbes, with Vince Bracciale riding; Bordeaux Box, Eddie Maple; Parade Marshal, Jerry Bailey; Mogambo, Jose Santos; Personal Flag, Jorge Velasquez; Johns Treasure, Laffit Pincay; Ferdinand, Bill Shoemaker; Danzig Connection, Chris McCarron; Imperious Spirit, Ruben Hernandez, and Rampage, Pat Day.

All of the starters will carry 126 pounds in the 1 1/2-mile race, the last and longest in the Triple Crown series.


Carl Grinstead, the managing partner of Preakness winner Snow Chief, elected to skip the Belmont when the horse came up with a small bump on his leg after winning the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park May 26.

Support for Johns Treasure will stem from his 8-length win, going a mile against allowance horses May 25.

Although Kelley and Stephens have been in racing just about the same number of years--which is to say since they were teen-agers--the comparison ends there. Stephens is a society trainer. He has several well-heeled clients who buy expensive yearlings at auction and then turn them over to him to train. Kelley has been a struggler, operating a small stable and only occasionally coming up with a horse of Johns Treasure’s potential.

Stephens has won seven Triple Crown races--four Belmonts, two Kentucky Derbies and a Preakness. Kelley has never started a horse in the Belmont. The only time Kelley came close was in 1943, when his Blue Swords finished second to eventual Triple Crown champion Count Fleet in both the Derby and the Preakness. Blue Swords suffered a tendon injury in the Preakness, however, and his career was over.


“Count Fleet is the greatest horse I ever saw,” Kelley said the other day in his stable office. “Although, I was around another great one, Phar Lap, when I was trying to become a jockey in Tijuana in 1932. I watched from the roof of the race track as Phar Lap won the Caliente Handicap that year.

“I knew the connections (handlers) of Reveille Boy, the horse that finished second, and bet everything I had on him, trying to beat Phar Lap that day. Phar Lap could have won that race with a 90-pound sack of oats on his back.”

The Brooklyn-born Kelley divides his time between Florida and New York. He travels with Dorothy, his wife of 52 years, but she won’t be seen around the barn.

“She’s had horses spit at her and bite her, and she just doesn’t like them,” Kelley said. “You know, even if she owned this horse that’s running Saturday, she wouldn’t come out to watch him run. She gets on me every day I come home, telling me how dirty I get on the job. But she is my fishin’ buddy. That’s what she really likes to do.”


Kelley got up from his desk and walked over to a small refrigerator in the corner of the room.

“Take a look at this beauty,” he said. “That’s a 5 1/2-pound trout. She caught it the other day, right out here on Long Island.”

Kelley was asked where his wife fished. It was the only question he didn’t answer all morning. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “Not with all those good fish waiting for us the next time we go.”

Johns Treasure may be fishing in the Belmont, too, although with a race devoid of early speed, he is considered dangerous.


“I imagine my horse and Woody’s horse will be close to the front early, because there’s nobody else in there that likes to run in the first part,” Kelley said. “This is a good horse, and a good horse is like a gun--he’s liable to go off in anybody’s hands.”

Johns Treasure, a $300,000 yearling purchase by Texan John R. Murrell, didn’t run as a 2-year-old because of sore shins. In Florida this year, the son of Exclusive Native and Nalees Flying, a Hoist the Flag mare, ran second in his first start, then won by 13 lengths against maidens.

In New York this spring, Johns Treasure suffered a cracked hoof, forcing Kelley to fit him with a protective aluminum bar shoe, which the colt will wear in the Belmont. Johns Treasure’s first start with the special shoe produced a second-place finish, which was followed by that big win last month.

“This horse has run true every time,” Kelley said. “He acts like he could win this race, and he’s coming up to it in good shape. At a mile and a half, a lot of us are guessing how our horses will do. The only thing I’ll tell (Laffit) Pincay before the race is that this horse is all yours. There’s nothing I can tell a jockey who’s won the Belmont three out of the last four years.”


If Woody Stephens’ hot hand in the Belmont should end Saturday, it would be fitting if Walter Kelley and Johns Treasure were the spoilers. It would almost make up for that full house that wasn’t quite good enough in Panama all those years ago.


PP HORSE JOCKEY ODDS 1 Fobby Forbes Vince Bracciale 15-1 2 Bordeaux Bob Eddie Maple 30-1 3 Parade Marshal Jerry Bailey 20-1 4 Mogambo Jose Santos 4-1 5 Personal Flag Jorge Velasquez 10-1 6 Johns Treasure Laffit Pincay 6-1 7 Ferdinand Bill Shoemaker 9-5 8 Danzig Connection Chris McCarron 6-1 9 Imperious Spirit Ruben Hernandez 30-1 10 Rampage Pat Day 9-2

Owners by post position--1. Due Process Stable. 2. Marc Barge. 3. Greentree Stable. 4. Peter Brant. 5. Ogden Phipps. 6. John R. Murrell. 7. Elizabeth Keck. 8. Henryk de Kwiatkowski. 9. Don Mangano. 10. John and Nancy Reed.


Trainers by post position--1. Carlos Garcia. 2. Woody Sedlacek. 3. Bob Reinacher. 4. LeRoy Jolley. 5. Claude McGaughey. 6. Walter Kelley. 7. Charlie Whittingham. 8. Woody Stephens. 9. Kenneth Jumps. 10. Gary Thomas.

Weights--All carry 126 pounds. Gross value--$564,.400 with 10 starters. Value to winner--$338,640. Second--$124,168. Third--$67,728. Fourth--$33,864. Post time--Saturday, 2:40 p.m. PDT. Television -- Channel 7.