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He's Got The Horse Right Here
William Nack
March 05, 1984
Here's a hot tip straight from the mouth of trainer Woody Stephens: Triple Crown-favorite Devil's Bag is the best horse he has ever had
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March 05, 1984

He's Got The Horse Right Here

Here's a hot tip straight from the mouth of trainer Woody Stephens: Triple Crown-favorite Devil's Bag is the best horse he has ever had

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Then he let out the word that Iamarelic had recently tried to bolt—that is, while working on the rail, he had tried to make a run for the outside fence. A bad character. Not true, of course, but there's nothing wrong with keeping a good thing secret on the racetrack. Iamarelic was ready to hum, and Stephens wanted to keep it quiet, diverting any interest from him. The horse had broken badly his last time out, so Stephens picked Ovie Scurlock, a good gate rider, as the jockey. Scurlock's agent, concerned about word that the horse had bolted, came by and asked, "How bad is this horse?"

"He warns you before he bolts," Stephens said. Scurlock's agent wouldn't be betting on him or telling anyone else to.

Stephens went to Scurlock's trailer and told him, "Ovie, you can ride this horse with a halter! Believe me." Which is to say, he really will run. Actually, off that half in :46, he'll fly.

"Bet me $200 on him," Ovie said.

He put $1,500 on Iamarelic. "Biggest bet I ever made in my life," he says. "I was sure he was going to win." Of course, Martin bet, too. Out of the gate well, Iamarelic opened a quick length lead, a hummingbird going for the nectar. Then three lengths. Then five. He won by eight. Scurlock made $760, Stephens $5,700. "That's a pretty good bet for a country boy," he says. Lord knows what Martin bet and made. "You're playin' the game like it should be played," Woody says. "It was fun."

Martin had unwittingly played a crucial role in Stephens' career as a trainer. In the summer of 1951, Martin's former trainer, Judge, had a 2-year-old named Blue Man that he'd run for a $12,500 claiming tag. The colt had finished 10th. Judge was nearing 80, old and sick, when Martin saw him and urged him to give the horse to Stephens, telling Judge to go to Hot Springs and convalesce in the baths. "Steve liked those baths," Woody says. "So he come to me the next day with Blue Man in his right hand and the feed tub in the other." Off he went.

The colt bloomed that fall, winning two allowance races and finishing second in a stakes. Stephens had himself a race horse. The next year, he won the Flamingo Stakes with him and finished third in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, Blue Man won the Preakness. "That's the first real classic I ever won," he says. "That was the beginning of me." In fact, he still has the gold money clip, engraved with his initials, that A.W. Abbott, the horse's owner, gave him to commemorate the occasion.

In 1956, Stephens accepted a proposal made by Guggenheim, the philanthropist and naval aviator: $50,000 a year and 20% of all profits. No commissions on purses. Stephens asked what it cost to run the stable, and Guggenheim told him $450,000 a year.

"So I went to work," Stephens says.

For the first time in his life, Stephens had himself a barn full of horses with royal pedigrees. He developed and trained his share of fast horses for Cain Hoy, and among the first was the winner of the 1959 Matron Stakes, Heavenly Body. There was also Make Sail, winner of the 1960 Alabama, and Never Bend, one of the fastest of his generation. But it was with two castoffs from England that Stephens did his most notable work.

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