ELMONT, N.Y. -- There could hardly be a running of the Belmont Stakes without Woody Stephens’ fingerprints on it. Stephens has been dead for five years, and it has been almost two decades since he won his last of five consecutive Belmonts, yet when Funny Cide shoots for the Triple Crown here June 7, the memory of the Woodman won’t be far off. Stephens’ fourth Belmont winner, you see, was a gelding.
The year was 1985 and the horse’s name was Creme Fraiche. He is the only gelding to have won the Belmont -- a snooty race that banned castrated horses from 1919 through 1956 -- and now Funny Cide, with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness already in his saddlebags, is on the threshold of becoming the second.
The other day, the Jockey Club put out a list of geldings that have earned the most money. John Henry was No. 1, with $6.5 million, and Funny Cide was listed at No. 24 with $1.8 million, a number that can mushroom to $7-million-plus with a Belmont victory, because there is a $5-million bonus for a Triple Crown sweep. But Creme Fraiche, despite a $4-million career, was omitted. He belongs in fourth place, behind John Henry, Best Pal and Jim And Tonic, among the plutocrat geldings. Were Stephens still alive, you’d be able to hear his caterwauling protest all the way to Poughkeepsie.
The mistake might have been made by the American Racing Manual, considered the bible of the sport. There, among the listings of leading earners regardless of reproductive equipment, an H stands next to Creme Fraiche’s name. In racing shorthand, H stands for horse -- meaning a male that hasn’t been gelded. Betty Moran, who raced Creme Fraiche until his retirement in 1987, might wonder why she hasn’t been breeding her Belmont winner all these years.
The story that Stephens used to tell, how he gelded Creme Fraiche and then waited until he won his first start before telling Moran, is apocryphal, Moran said from her Brushwood Farm near Philadelphia.
“What really happened,” she said, “is that the farm manager [in Virginia] called me and said that Creme Fraiche was an unruly colt. He said he couldn’t deal with him, and asked if they could geld him.”
Moran, also a commercial breeder, said no at first. But then the farm called back a few weeks later, with the same request, and she approved the castration.
“If he had been [a son of] Storm Cat, or some established stallion like that, they probably would have had to call me five or six times before I would have given them the go-ahead,” Moran said.
In his first start, at Aqueduct in October 1984, Creme Fraiche won by 3 1/2 lengths at 20-1. Just 10 days later, Stephens wheeled Creme Fraiche back and he won again -- this time at 3-5 -- at Aqueduct. Then the horse closed out his 2-year-old campaign to mixed notices. He finished off the board in a couple of stakes tries in New York, before winning a minor stake at Calder three days before Christmas.
At Hialeah that winter, the serious Kentucky Derby prospect in Stephens’ barn was Stephan’s Odyssey. The Hollywood Futurity winner raced for Henryk de Kwiatkowski, whose Conquistador Cielo had started Woody’s Belmont five-bagger in 1982. Creme Fraiche struggled in four Florida races, and was judged to be ill-suited for the Derby. The only plaudits he gleaned at Churchill Downs came from winning the Derby Trial, a week before the big race.
Creme Fraiche didn’t run again until the $1-million Jersey Derby, less than two weeks before the Belmont. The marquee horse at Garden State Park was Spend A Buck, who had won the Derby and been audaciously held out of the Preakness so he might earn a $2-million bonus by winning the New Jersey race. Spend A Buck did win, but Creme Fraiche and his jockey, Eddie Maple, were no doormats, losing by only a neck. Moran said that with a better ride from Maple, her horse might have won.
Second in the Derby and fourth in the Peter Pan, Stephan’s Odyssey was in Stephens’ Belmont plans all along, and when the weather forecast called for rain Belmont weekend, that cemented his decision to run Creme Fraiche as well. Two of Creme Fraiche’s best races -- his maiden win and the Derby Trial -- had been on off tracks.
“If it came up mud, I gave Creme Fraiche a big chance,” Stephens said much later. “Other than my two, I didn’t think it was much of a field. I thought we had a good shot to be 1-2.”
Maple had been bounced off Stephan’s Odyssey early in the year, when a fuming De Kwiatkowski penalized him for not claiming foul after a third-place finish in a roughly run Flamingo. Laffit Pincay got the Belmont assignment on De Kwiatkowski’s colt, and Maple could almost see what was coming. Pincay, a California jockey who rode only sparingly for Stephens over the years, had won Woody’s first three Belmonts -- with Conquistador Cielo, Caveat and Swale -- after Maple had either opted for other horses in the barn or had been injured.
But this Belmont day, Maple’s ship would finally come in. Chief’s Crown, who had been favored in all of the Triple Crown races without winning any, ran third. Tank’s Prospect, the Preakness winner, went lame in the Belmont and was retired. The track was muddy, Creme Fraiche got the better trip and he beat his stablemate by half a length. From the box seats, De Kwiatkowski, standing next to Stephens, started yelling as the horses neared the wire. He thought Stephan’s Odyssey had won.
“Sorry, Henryk,” said Stephens, who had a better view. “You better go over and congratulate Mrs. Moran.”
Maple threw his whip skyward as he crossed the finish line.
“Wouldn’t you know it was the gelding that won it,” said Stephens, who received breeding rights to most of his stakes winners. “But I was happy that Eddie finally got his Belmont.”
Had he not been gelded, Creme Fraiche probably would have been rushed off to stud in 1986. Instead he hung around and padded his earnings. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in successive years, beating Danzig Connection, Stephens’ fifth Belmont winner, in 1986. He also won the Donn Handicap and the Meadowlands Cup. But then he regressed. In 1989, after going winless in five starts, Creme Fraiche’s 64-race, 17-win career ended. He had also run second 12 times and been third 13 times.
“He was sound, but he had slipped below the grade of racing that he had become accustomed,” Moran said.
At 21, Creme Fraiche is in good health and exercises in a large paddock with a few of Moran’s retired steeplechase horses at Brushwood.
“He hasn’t had a saddle on him since the day we retired him,” Moran said.
In 2000, just outside Liverpool, England, Moran’s jumper, Papillon, won the 4 1/2-mile Grand National, the Belmont of British steeplechasing.
“The Belmont and the Grand National were my most exciting days in racing,” Moran said, “but it would be difficult to compare the two. The two races are so different. It would be like trying to compare baseball with tennis.”
All-Time Gelding Money List
1. John Henry ... $6,597,947
2. Best Pal ... $5,668,245
3. Jim And Tonic ... $4,975,807
4. Creme Fraiche ... $4,024,727
5. Caller One ... $3,184,500
6. General Challenge ... $2,876,018
7. Rough Habit ...$2,861,579
8. Budroyale ... $2,840,810
9. Buck’s Boy ... $2,750,148
10. With Anticipation ... $2,654,563
11. Dramatic Gold ... $2,567,630
12. Sir Bear ... $2,538,422
13. Quiet Resolve ... $2,346,768
14. Kona Gold ... $2,289,384
15. Affirmed Success ... $2,285,315
16. Sarafan ... $2,252,412
17. Val’s Prince ... $2,118,785
18. Itsallgreektome ... $1,994,618
19. Kelso ... $1,977,896
20. Ladies Din ... $1,966,754
21. Guided Tour ... $1,964,253
22. Little Bold John ... $1,956,406
23. Forego ... $1,938,957
24. Da Hoss ... $1,931,558
25. Funny Cide ... $1,889,385