Woody Stephens, the 70-year-old horse trainer, was musing aloud, holding an empty glass in one hand and leaning slightly forward in his seat. "So I went to New York in 1944 and never looked back," he said.
"Would you like another drink?" the stewardess asked.
"I feel grateful for everything I've had," Stephens began anew. "I left the farm as a country farm kid. I was lucky enough to meet Lucille, a nice girl, a good girl, and we've gotten along for 46 years.... I did everything I wanted to do. I rode horses; I trained horses. I never trained for nobody I couldn't train for again. I still feel good. I'm happy. I can't wait to get on that pony in the morning and go out on that racetrack and watch those horses train! I think I've called the shots pretty good on these horses. I think I've done good by them; I think they've done good by me. If I could turn my life around, there's no way I'd turn it. I wouldn't change a thing."
It was late afternoon of a day in early February, and Stephens was flying from Fort Lauderdale to New York to accept his first Eclipse Award, the horse racing industry's Oscar, as the American trainer of the year for 1983. He earned it chiefly for training the 1984 Kentucky Derby favorite, the undefeated Devil's Bag, and Miss Oceana, the top-weighted 2-year-old filly in the Experimental Handicap.
Devil's Bag himself had won the Eclipse as the nation's leading 2-year-old colt, extending Stephens' phenomenal string of consecutive champions. The Bag, as Stephens often calls him, was the trainer's fifth Eclipse champion in five years, following Smart Angle (1979), Heavenly Cause (1980), De La Rose (1981) and Conquistador Cielo (1982). In his first race of this year, on Feb. 20 at Hialeah, Devil's Bag, with Eddie Maple riding, won by seven lengths, clocking an impressive 1:21[3/5] for seven furlongs. Stephens will launch The Bag's serious campaign this Saturday when he saddles him to take on Dr. Carter and Time for a Change, both exceptional colts in their own right, in the 1⅛-mile Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah.
What is so striking about Stephens' stable of 25 horses at Hialeah this year is its depth of proven talent. Aside from the Bag and Miss Oceana, who'll be making a run at the filly Triple Crown, Stephens trains three other 3-year-olds who have won stakes: Swale, Vision and Morning Bob. "I've got a bench backing up The Bag," he says. And he has: Sabin, who has won six stakes races on grass, and a fine older filly, Quixotic Lady, who won the 1983 Monmouth Oaks.
The market value of Stephens' stable is probably between $80 and $100 million. Devil's Bag already has been syndicated for $36 million. Stephens figures that Swale, a son of Seattle Slew, is worth at least $14 million. To the enterprise of getting these bluebloods fit to run, Woodford Cefis Stephens brings a nearly childlike sense of spontaneity and enthusiasm that has propelled him for years.
"I have enjoyed the game so!" he says. This is the Stephens, a man basically unchanged through the decades, who in 1950 wore an expensive new felt fedora—fitted for him by Cavanaugh, the swank haberdasher—to the winner's circle at Belmont Park after his two-horse entry of Away Away and Iamarelic ran first and third in the Cowdin Stakes. It had been pouring and his fedora was drenched as he bounced exuberantly into the winner's circle. Someone yelled, "Hey, Woody, you've ruined your hat." He grabbed it off his head and flipped it over the fence to the crowd.
"I only wear 'em once anyway!"