The great Kentucky-born trainer and two-time Kentucky Derby winner Woody Stephens enjoyed a career in racing that was, by any measure of success, a lifelong highlight reel.
The Stanton native won a pair of Kentucky Derbys and five runnings of the Kentucky Oaks, but the accomplishment for which the Hall of Fame trainer is best known happened a long way from his Kentucky home.
And it is a record that will never be matched.
If you could find a way to bet today on that prospect, take the action. Stephensâ€™ distinctive racing record is safer than the gold in Fort Knox and a sure thing in a sport in which they do not exist.
Woodford Cefis Stephens won five runnings of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
Yes, the record book shows that James Rowe Sr. (eight wins), Sam Hildreth (seven) and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (six) each won more Belmonts than Woody.
So letâ€™s add an important detail: Stephens won five consecutive runnings of the 1 1/2-mile â€œTest of the Champion,â€ the third and final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Stephens guided five distinctly different horses in as many years to win the 12-furlong American classic. The Belmont, like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is restricted to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds, so Stephensâ€™ feat cannot be compared to strings of successive triumphs in major races like those by legendary and durable geldings like Kelso, Forego and John Henry.
Stephens accomplished his untouchable feat in five successive years with starkly different horses: Conquistador Cielo (1982), Caveat (1983), Kentucky Derby winner Swale (1984), CrÃ¨me Fraiche (1985) and Danzig Connection (1986).
Though his Powell County birthplace was located in the eastern half of Kentucky, New York was always Woodyâ€™s town. But it was never more so than during that five-year stretch of Belmont Stakes greatness.
Itâ€™s a considerable understatement to say that Stephens, who died in 1998, was keenly aware of both his accomplishments and place in racing history. An enduring part of his personal charm was the great trainerâ€™s willingness to share that knowledge with the media and, especially, his rivals.
Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who has practiced his craft for Newark, New Jersey, Newark Star-Ledger since 1951, recalled such a moment in a 2011 profile of Stephens.
Izenberg recalled a pre-Belmont Stakes luncheon during which Stephens directed a public admonition toward fellow trainer Jack Van Berg, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985 and himself a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Alysheba in 1987.
â€œYou know, Jack, when you cross the Hudson those buildings get taller and taller,â€ Stephens cracked. â€œYou ainâ€™t at the Omaha State Fair anymore.â€
Four-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Fame legend D. Wayne Lukas and the feisty Stephens had an adversarial relationship for a good while. Lukas â€“ a four-time winner of the Belmont Stakes with 14 total wins in Triple Crown races on his resume â€“ told Izenberg that they eventually became friends and would enjoy lunch at New York tracks.
But Lukas said Stephens rarely missed an opportunity to remind him of the streak.
â€œWe had this thing where weâ€™d go back and forth, and heâ€™d tell me, â€˜Youâ€™ll never get five Belmonts,â€™ and Iâ€™d say, â€˜Well, I got four now, and I ainâ€™t done yetâ€™,â€ Lukas told Izenberg. â€œThen heâ€™d come back with, â€˜Yeah, but I got five in a row.â€™ And there was no answer for that.â€
The Kentucky Derby winner will not participate in this yearâ€™s Belmont Stakes. Nyquist, who won the roses on the first Saturday in May, came down with an infection after a third-place run behind Derby runner-up Exaggerator in the Preakness and is taking some time off to recover.
That development sets the stage for a Belmont Stakes renewal on June 11 that will be highlighted by top prospects trained by horsemen who, like Stephens, honed their skills a good distance from the Big Apple.
Louisiana-born Keith Desormeaux trains Exaggerator and will give his brother â€“ three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux â€“ a leg up into the saddle to ride the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in an effort to win two-thirds of this yearâ€™s Triple Crown.
Steve Asmussen â€“ South Dakota-born and now a Texas resident â€“ will bid for his first Belmont with Creator, who finished a troubled 13th in the Kentucky Derby. A Belmont victory would be a cherry atop the 2016 sundae for Asmussen, who will enshrined along with his 2009 Preakness winner and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, in racingâ€™s Hall of Fame on August 12.
And Donnie K. Von Hemel â€“ a Kansas native who hails from the revered Midwest training family that includes father Don and his brother, Kelly â€“ has a legitimate chance to win his first Triple Crown race with Suddenbreakingnews. A fifth in the Derby, Suddenbreakingnews missed a third-place Derby finish by two noses and has trained sharply for his trip to New York and next weekâ€™s race.
Each trainer will have traveled a considerable distance for their respective shots at a Belmont Stakes triumph, not unlike Stephensâ€™ trek from his Kentucky hometown. Asmussen and Desormeaux have already tasted Triple Crown success with success in the Preakness, the former with wins by Rachel Alexandra and Curlin (2007) and the latterâ€™s win with Exaggerator.
Should any member of the training trio successfully cross the Hudson to win this yearâ€™s Belmont, it will be a shining career moment. If the man who established the most enduring of American horse racing records were still with us, he would surely urge the winner to savor the moment.
And then heâ€™d likely offer a bit of advice: Remember that youâ€™ll need to win the next four Belmonts to catch Woody Stephens. VT