Soon after legendary trainer Woody Stephens won a record fifth consecutive Belmont Stakes in 1986, the New York Racing Association presented him with a wristwatch to commemorate his string of winners. Stephens loved the watch. But mostly he loved to use it to needle D. Wayne Lukas, a younger rival who was Stephens's match in garrulousness, competitive fire and ego. "See this watch," Stephens would say, smirking. "The only way Lukas is going to get one is if I leave it to him in my will. Five Belmonts in a row. Who's ever going to beat that?"
At the time the question seemed purely rhetorical. Stephens's five-peat (with Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale, Creme Fraiche and Danzig Connection) seemed as safe as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. But now a certain trainer has won his third straight Belmont. And—get a grip, Woody—it's Lukas, who has won seven of the last eight Triple Crown races overall. You can almost set your watch by him.
His latest score came last Saturday when a Belmont crowd of 40,797 was treated to a thrilling stretch duel between the Lukas-trained Editor's Note and Preakness runner-up Skip Away. After hooking up with Skip Away midway in the stretch, Editor's Note, heretofore a shameless underachiever, dug in for the last 50 yards and pulled off to a one-length victory.
Entering the race the field of 14 was more notable for who was not running than for who was. Missing were the Derby winner—the Lukas-trained Grindstone, who was retired five days after his victory at Churchill Downs because of a bone chip in a knee—and the pre-Derby favorite, Unbridled's Song, who has been as consistently mismanaged as Major League Baseball. Naturally, anyone with a half-decent 3-year-old wanted a shot. Owner Virginia Kraft Payson went to her European stable for South Salem, who had never run on the dirt. The usually conservative trainer Shug McGaughey entered a filly, My Flag, a multiple-stakes winner who had earned more than $1 million, even though no female had won the Belmont since 1905. "They've pretty well mixed it up in the first two [Triple Crown] races this year," McGaughey said. "I haven't seen a superstar yet."
The odds reflected that. The favorite, at a tepid 3-1, was Cavonnier, who had been collared by Grindstone at the wire in the Derby. But a bettor could get Preakness winner Louis Quatorze at 6-1, My Flag at virtually the same price and Skip Away at 8-1.
That Editor's Note went off as the 5-1 second choice was a tribute to Lukas's unprecedented Triple Crown run. Off his past performances Editor's Note was beginning to look more like a classic sucker bet than a potential classic winner. He always came from off the pace to hit the board. The problem was, he never finished first. But no one was willing to count out a Lukas horse, even though the two he entered in the Belmont, Editor's Note and Prince of Thieves, had been disappointments in both the Derby and the Preakness.
Going into the Belmont, Editor's Note had lost nine consecutive races since he won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last Sept. 23 at Turfway Park. Even William T. Young, who purchased him for $125,000 at the 1994 Keeneland Select Yearling Sale, was having doubts about ever taking Editor's Note to the winner's circle. But the colt always made such strong late moves—in those nine starts he had three seconds, three thirds and a fourth—that neither Lukas nor Gary Stevens, his regular rider, would give up on him. "Gary has never lost confidence in this colt," Lukas said after Editor's Note finished third in the Preakness. "He says he wants to stay on him because he's going to win one of these things."
But Stevens aggravated a chronic left shoulder injury so badly on June 5 that he was forced to sit out the Belmont. Lukas initially called Corey Nakatani, the leading rider in California, but Nakatani had too many commitments at Hollywood Park. "I considered about five or six guys that I use," Lukas said. He tried Rene Douglas, 29, a relative unknown from Panama who had caught Lukas's attention because of his cool, calm riding style.
Douglas gave up his ride in Saturday's Cinema Stakes at Hollywood Park and, with his agent, Tony Matos, began studying tapes of every one of Editor's Note's races. Upon arriving in New York on Thursday, Douglas had skull sessions with Lukas and Stevens, who had flown in from California to be an analyst for ABC. "I want to thank Gary Stevens," Douglas said after the race. "He told me a lot of little things about the horse that you couldn't see on the tapes."
There was plenty of speed in the Belmont field. The import, South Salem, set a sizzling early pace (:23.45 for the quarter) but quickly surrendered the lead to Appealing Skier, who in turn was overtaken by a third long shot, Natural Selection, just after they had gone a half mile in a very fast :46.95. In the turn for home My Flag, who had been 13th in the early going, was still working her way up, and the veterans of the first two Triple Crown races—Cavonnier, Editor's Note, Louis Quatorze and Prince of Thieves, all following the lead of Skip Away—were positioning themselves for a final sprint.