Top Trainer Woody Stephens May Bag the Triple Crown with One of His Classy Colts
Heading into the final turn before Saturday's Kentucky Derby, 70-year-old Woody Stephens, one of the top horse trainers in the land, was, well, a mite preoccupied. His two prize colts were not quite showing their heels, as advertised, to the competition. Just two weeks ago, in Lexington, Ky., Swale, the gutty son of Seattle Slew, finished eight lengths behind a mediocre horse named He Is A Great Deal. Even more disturbing was the performance of the much-ballyhooed Devil's Bag, who won all five races he entered as a 2-year-old and was syndicated for $36 million. (Secretariat brought only $6.08 million and he was 3!) He staggered home a winded fourth in Florida's Flamingo Stakes the day before Woody took his tumble. The trouble, they were whispering all along the backstretch, was that Devil's Bag's early victories had come in sprints. John Veitch, trainer of archrival Dr. Carter, wondered aloud whether the Bag was horse enough to lead the pack around two turns and take the one-and-a-quarter-mile Derby. "Veitch has never beaten a good horse in his life," retorted Woody. "He won't know what hit him!" In spite of being hospitalized for pneumonia last week, Stephens has been sleeping a little more soundly since Devil's Bag romped to a 15-length victory in the Forerunner Purse on April 19.
Stephens has won more than 250 stakes races. He has trained winners of the Eclipse Award, given annually to the top 10 racehorses in the country, for the last five years in a row. In 1976 he was inducted into horse racing's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Indeed, the only honor that has eluded him in 55 years at the track has been the Triple Crown; though Stephens has trained Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners, he has yet to train a horse who took all three races.
Woody was born in Stanton, Ky., one of five kids sired by a sharecropper. He was brought up without electricity, but he did have a pony named Bill. One day when he was 13, he attempted to walk Bill up to an idling locomotive and put his head next to the engine. "I'd spur him and he'd shy back," Woody remembers. "Well, this banker happened to see me doing this, and he asked me to break yearlings for him." Simple as that.
Stephens worked as a hot-walker, an exercise boy, a groom and a lackluster jockey. Finally a trainer suggested he come down off his horse and become a trainer himself. On June 18, 1936 his first charge, Deliberator, won the sixth race in Covington, Ky., and Woody was in business. Eight years later he promptly hooked up with a horseplayer from Cincinnati named Jule Fink, who taught him "how to claim horses, place horses and pace horses." He also taught him how to bet—in fact he and Fink won so much so often they were denied stall space at tracks in Miami and California. Eventually The Jockey Club barred Fink from owning horses, alleging that he knew too many bookmakers. Woody, who came into the partnership with just $400, bowed out in 1947 with $70,000.
Shortly thereafter he aligned himself with Royce Martin, who had a spread in Woodvale, Ky. In 1952 Woody guided a colt named Blue Man to victories in the Flamingo Stakes and the Preakness, Stephens' first major victories. But it was in 1956, after Martin's death, that Woody broke into the big time. He joined Harry Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable, where he developed such blue-chip talent as Heavenly Body, Make Sail, Never Bend, Iron Peg and the great Bald Eagle.
These days Woody's 44-horse stable, which he operates for 13 different owners, is worth more than $100 million. And that's not all. "I think I've got about 12 different top horses now that I've got breeding rights to," he says, "so that takes care of me and Lucille as long as we live." With Devil's Bag returning to form, this might just be Woody's year to lay claim to the Triple Crown—not that he puts much store in such trivial pursuits. "Them prizes don't matter to me," he says, crusty to the end.
John Veitch, meanwhile, has also been giving the events of the next few weeks some thought. It's his belief that "the only thing you can hope for is that Woody drinks a little too much, and maybe the alcohol will saturate his brain a bit. This game is full of pitfalls," he adds. "It's what makes you either get bald or go gray." Veitch, incidentally, is bald as an egg.