Last Saturday morning, some eight hours before the 115th running of the Belmont Stakes, trainers Woody Stephens and Sidney Watters Jr. crossed bridle paths in the stable area of Belmont Park. They're old friends. For years, as two of the best and hardest-working professionals in the game, they had traded kind words and gentle barbs in their comings and goings on the Belmont back-stretch. Now, for the first time, they were about to saddle horses against each other in the track's premier race. Watters was sending out the favorite, front-running Slew o' Gold, a fast, beautifully made son of the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. Stephens' horse was Caveat, the second choice, an equally handsome bay whose game is to come from off the pace.
"You sleep well last night?" Stephens asked Watters, teasing.
"I needed two alarm clocks to wake me up," said the unflappable Watters by way of rejoinder.
"But in the terrible dreams you were having," Woody shot back, "I was coming after you, chasing you down! How did them dreams feel?"
As things turned out, Woodford Cefis Stephens came as close to envisioning the final moments of this Belmont as any handicapper on the grounds. Caveat made it emphatically, unequivocally his race at the turn for home. Rushing from far off the pace, he accelerated in one quick burst and charged into a perilously shrinking hole on the inside. It was a suicide squeeze, and that he survived at all was miraculous. Caveat bounced off the rail twice, like a billiard ball, and then a tiring and intimidated Au Point bumped into him, yet Caveat and Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. managed to fight their way through the strait, collaring Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. and Slew o' Gold coming into the stretch and simply running away from them—iadi�s, amigos!—through the last quarter-mile.
Caveat won by 3� lengths, running the 1� miles in 2:27[4/5]. That was far off Secretariat's record 2:24 flat, set 10 years ago, but nonetheless it was racehorse time. It was, in sum, an extremely game performance by both horse and rider, and one made even more memorable by the gathering later in the winner's circle.
That was, in a sense, a happy reunion, with Stephens greeting Pincay as he approached on horseback, just as he did a year ago, when the horse was Conquistador Cielo. "The feeling is super," said Pincay, who had spent a professional lifetime, until last year's Belmont, seeking to win a 3-year-old classic. "After all those years of trying to win one, and then I win two."
Even the horse, in a way, shared in the reunion. Caveat is a son of Cannonade, the winner of the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974. Stephens trained Cannonade. Cannonade finished third in the Belmont Stakes that year, beaten by Little Current, but now his best son had won the race in his turn. "Ain't that sweet?" Stephens said.
And then Stephens wrapped an arm around one of Caveat's three owners, August Belmont IV, and guided him into the celebration. "Here's my man," Woody said. "We won the Belmont Stakes for the Belmonts!"
It had been a long time between Belmonts for the Belmonts. August IV, 74, is the great-grandson of August I, the 19th-century financier who won the 1869 Belmont Stakes with Fenian, and after whom Belmont Park was named by his son, August Belmont II, when August II founded the racecourse in 1905. The family has owned or bred nine Belmont Stakes winners, most notably a chestnut colt named Man o' War, but August IV is the first Belmont to race horses on the flats since 1924, the year August II died.