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Stephens was going to school then, totally immersed in his profession. But the real school, the one that would make the most difference, was only about to open. Jule Fink was a professional horseplayer out of Cincinnati who, in 10 days at age 20 in 1933, had parlayed 10¢ in carfare his mother had given him into $30,000, mostly by betting the horses at poolroom books. Compared to today's more sophisticated handicapping methods. Fink's ideas were primitive, but they worked. He developed his ideas by studying racing charts. He loved horses with speed.
"I found the largest percentage of horses won on the lead," Fink says. "Whenever I was sure a horse would go to the lead, I'd bet on him. People are speed-conscious now. They weren't in those years. Trainers trained for classic distances...." He later discovered other wrinkles, new patterns to bet. "You'd get good prices on horses that had speed going a distance and then were turned back to six or seven furlongs. People thought going a distance dulled their speed. But I found these horses would run stronger at the finish going short."
What Fink then did was turn from horseplayer to owner-horseplayer, figuring he could use his handicapping expertise as a buyer and seller of horses. And in 1944, offering 15% of all winning purses and $1,000 a month in salary while promising to bet for him on good things, Fink sought Stephens as his trainer. Stephens couldn't resist. He had $400 to his name, and this gave him a chance to race his own stable in New York.
"I'm a bettor," Fink told Stephens flat-out. "You're not going to win 'em all, but you've got to win some." Fink and his followers came to be known in New York as the Speed Boys, the most exciting racing phenomenon to hit the state in years.
What Stephens learned from Fink was how to handicap a race, where to spot a horse best, how to evaluate the way a race is coming up. "When I went with Jule there were some of the fine things I needed to know," he says. "What makes 'em win and what makes 'em lose? He taught me how to claim horses, how to place horses, how to pace horses. He taught me how to stretch out a horse's speed. Jule was the best handicapper around, without question. There are a lot around now who know the tricks. But you could make so many beautiful claims in those days."
Fink and Stephens decided to race in California that winter of 1945 and had just shipped 18 horses out there when, because of the war effort, racing was suspended in the U.S. They decided to stay in California. The suspension was actually a blessing, for it gave Stephens a chance to freshen his weary horses for the coming spring. "We'd go under those orange groves," he says, "and pick grass that was just like celery that horses love, and they would chomp on that until juice would come out of their mouths."
They left in the spring of 1945 on the California Limited out of Los Angeles, two carloads of horses heading back to New York. They were sidetracked by troop trains heading west—the war was almost over in Europe, but not in the Pacific—and by the Super Chief. "She could roll!" Stephens says. They idled in Chicago and Stephens stepped off the train and wandered through the station—and into a new age. "In the station, a radio was saying that Franklin Roosevelt had just died."
May 21 was opening day at Jamaica. Fink was the handicapper, Stephens the horseman. "Woody had his antennae out all the time, very receptive," Fink says. "He had a great eye for a horse and a great touch. A physical touch with a horse. He'd kneel next to a horse and touch and feel around and immediately know where the problem was. He knew when to back off and go on."
That spring and summer Fink bet with both fists—between $500 and $2,000 on a horse—and Stephens mostly went on. It was a delirious time for the Speed Boys. Tarpan, claimed for $4,500 the year before, wins the sixth race on opening day, bounding to the front and leading at every pole.
"He was worth $4,500, wasn't he?" Stephens cries today.