The chant began, a warm and rich outpouring of affection, as he slowly wended his way down the main aisle leading through the box-seat section of Belmont Park. Not even the oldest habitu�s of this proudest and grandest of American racetracks could recall anything quite like it.
But, quite magically, it was happening: Trainer Woodford Cefis (Woody) Stephens, 72, was on his way to the winner's circle. Hands reached out, wrapped around his neck, embraced him, tugged at him, slapped him on the back and tousled his thinning gray hair. "You did it!" cried the teary-eyed president of the New York Racing Association, Gerard McKeon, hugging Stephens. "You really did it!"
"Impossible!" the winning owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, repeated over and over. "I can't believe it. Impossible!"
That's when the chant began. Stephens's head turned from the back-slapping rich in the box seats to the masses standing in a misting rain on the apron of the grandstand below. It was a moment rare and glorious. The tribute came from the common folks, the ultimate accolade to this man and his craft. Men in blue jeans and open-necked shirts and women in simple frocks and pantsuits stood staring, as if confronting some kind of monarch. And, 2,000 strong, these $2 bettors chorused: "Woo-Dee! Woo-dee! Woo-Dee!"
Turning, he stopped among the braceleted arms of the Social Register and, smiling grandly, waved to the blue collars beneath him. They chanted on and on. As he worked his way to the winner's circle, he gave high fives to every man and woman lining the way. This was their racetrack, this man their trainer, and the New York crowd expressed its feelings for him in a way perhaps unprecedented in horse racing in this town.
"You are the greatest, Woody!" one man cried, as Stephens walked by.
"Awesome, Woody!" said a second.
"We love you, Woody!" yelled another. "Five in a row! Go, go, go!"
Ah, yes. As the trainer of Danzig Connection, at 8-1 one of the longest prices on the board, Woody Stephens had just won his fifth Belmont Stakes in a row. Before Danzig Connection, Stephens had saddled Belmont winners Conquistador Cielo (1982), Caveat (1983), Swale (1984) and Creme Fraiche (1985). In the long history of horse racing, no conditioner of the blooded horse had come close to accomplishing such a feat.
Further, as Stephens will readily admit, Danzig Connection was the weakest of his five Belmont winners. The trainer was about to give up on the colt as a Belmont starter as recently as May 16, the day Danzig Connection grabbed the lead late in a one-mile allowance race at Belmont Park and then, inexplicably, deflated like a birthday balloon in the stretch to finish second. Stephens could not understand it.