The winner's circle is familiar territory to Stephens. In New York, for years the toughest of racing circuits, he has won more than 230 stakes, more than any active New York trainer. Enshrined in racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga in 1976, Stephens has done every job a horseman can do on the racetrack. "I was a hot-walker, a groom, a jockey, an exercise boy, a stable foreman and an assistant trainer," he says. "What the hell, I had to learn something."
Stephens began on his own in New York in 1944, training mostly selling platers for an astute professional horseplayer, Jule Fink. He later went on to work for an old friend of Pancho Villa's, Royce Martin, then for members of The Jockey Club, including Harry F. Guggenheim of Cain Hoy Stable, Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm and James P. Mills, the owner of Devil's Bag. He has trained some of the best and fastest horses of their day: Blue Man, Bald Eagle, Never Bend, Bless Bull, Heavenly Body and all those Eclipse winners.
Seven days a week Stephens is up a little after 5 a.m. and at the barn by six. "I'm not three minutes either side of that," he said. "I've been going hard for 55 years."
Now the plane was about to land in New York, and Stephens was reflecting again. "I know there's not too many years left," he said. "How long can I go on? Lucille says to me, 'Why don't we travel?' But that's what I've been doing all my life! What am I going to do more exciting than what I'm doing now, training Devil's Bag? It's exciting. But how long can I last? I'm lucky enough now. The owners I've had. All these breeding rights to stallions I've trained—Conquistador, Devil's Bag, Danzig. Those studs will outlive me! But I'm holding on."
One recent afternoon at Hialeah, Stephens had said, "And I'll always remember that morning at Havre de Grace racetrack, when we worked those two horses in the dark in the rain."
Woody didn't say this so much as mutter it, as if in a moment of free association, between something he had just said and something he was about to say. It seemed at the time a line too quick and lovely to chase, something best left alone, a metaphor that somehow expressed a sense of the poetry, chance and excitement of life as he had lived it on American racetracks since he was a boy.
It suggested a daguerreotype of what was in his mind. You know.... It rained one early morning in Maryland, at Havre de Grace, and Woody sped through it, in the dark, flat out around the turn, a very young man hunched over the back of a horse that's no longer alive, on a racetrack that no longer exists—the horse breathing hard, his hooves striking and splashing beneath him, the wind and water in the rider's face and the horse carrying him very fast through the stretch toward home, to wherever.
"It's been a long road," Stephens said, on the ground again, "and I have a lot to talk about."
It was Jan. 15, 1931, and Stephens was sitting on a filly named Directly, stepping to the barrier for the sixth race at Hialeah over a mile and 70 yards. He weighed 85 pounds and was 17 years old, working for trainer John S. Ward, and the horse was $17.85 to 1. On his way out of the jocks' room, Stephens had given Dick Meade, a valet, $20 to bet for him on his filly, and Meade almost booked the bet, sticking the $20 in his pocket, but then thought again and made the bet.
They left the barrier, the start good. Stephens let Directly open up a length going to the first quarter, then two as she came to the half-mile mark. She rated kindly for him down the back side and then Rosevolt challenged, but Directly shook Rosevolt off around the far turn and was two in front again at the eighth pole. Now June Moon ranged up and cut the lead, and Stephens rode as hard as he could toward the wire, whipping and driving. Directly was tiring. June Moon came to her, but a nip too late. Directly won it by a nose. Woody had broken his maiden, won his first race.