Suddenly, in the Hazy, late-afternoon light, the day and the moment belonged to Pat Kelly. The field of eight horses was charging toward the eighth pole in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park last Saturday, and out there on the lead was the earthquake survivor Kelly trains, a strapping 4-year-old bay named Sultry Song, stretching out and digging in while leading the charge with just 400 yards to run. In his clubhouse box, Kelly lowered his binoculars and came to his feet, snapping his lingers and urging the colt on. "Come on!" he cried. "Hang in there!"
On the colt came, while four of the most talented horses in America—Strike the Gold, Thunder Rumble, Pleasant Tap and Out of Place—ran right behind him and nearly abreast, as though hitched to the same chariot. Through the top of the straight, they seemed about to pounce on him, but Sultry Song never yielded a yard to any of them. With jockey Jerry Bailey driving him home, the muscular colt drew off to win by almost two lengths, finishing the nine furlongs in a brisk 1:47. "This is unbelievable," Kelly said. "I was hoping to win just one of these races today. And then this...."
In nearly 15 years of training horses, Kelly had never had such an afternoon. Few horsemen have. The New York Racing Association carded four of its most prestigious Grade I stakes on a single day's program, billing them as early preps for the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup, and Kelly won the two richest and most important of them. Just before the Woodward, he sent out Solar Splendor to win the $400,000 Man o' War Stakes at 1? miles on the turf, setting up the 5-year-old gelding as a solid contender for the $2 million Breeders' Cup turf race. Then came Sultry Song, who, after his Woodward win, will be aimed for the $850,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 10 and, ultimately, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic and possible Horse of the Year honors.
Indeed, Sultry Song has revealed himself as one of the toughest, gamest competitors in the land. This year the colt didn't make his first start in a stakes race until June 6, when he finished third behind victorious Strike the Gold in the Nassau County Handicap at Belmont, but that effort emboldened Kelly enough to ship him in California to face the best older horses on the West Coast in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 27. Roaring from off the pace, Sultry Song won by 3� lengths. But the California expedition was not without its disconcerting moments. Kelly jumped on the red-eye after the race and flew back to New York, landing in Gotham the next morning to the news that an earthquake registering 7.4 on the Richter scale had rocked Southern California. He called the colt's groom, Norman Caraman, at Hollywood Park.
"Man, you wouldn't believe what happened here this morning," Caraman told him. "The earth rolled, and three feet of water jumped out of the horse swimming pool. All the horses were screaming."
Fortunately, Sultry Song came out of it unscathed, and four days later he was back in New York to prepare for the July 18 Suburban Handicap. He barely raised a gallop while traversing that mile and a quarter, and he ended up sixth, beaten 9� lengths by Pleasant Tap. In racetrack parlance, Sultry Song had "bounced"—that is, he ran dully in a race that followed a very strong performance. "He didn't run a yard in the Suburban," says Kelly. "I call it the earthquake bounce."
Kelly took the colt to Saratoga to freshen him and ran him in the Whitney Handicap on Aug. 29. Returning from a six-week layoff, Sultry Song held off Out of Place in a ferocious stretch drive that he won by a nose. Kelly brought him to the Woodward sensing that he had the colt just where he wanted him. "He's ready to roll," he said.
After Sultry Song's victory, there was Kelly, navigating through the clubhouse boxes at Belmont and looking like the cat that swallowed the world's fattest canary—the trainer of a horse who was getting good at precisely the right time.