Trainer Woody Stephens was lying in his hospital bed in Louisville last Saturday afternoon, convalescing from a serious bout with pneumonia compounded by emphysema and exhaustion, when he gave his wife, Lucille, her final instructions. Post time for the 57th running of the $54,500 Derby Trial stakes, the last major test for 3-year-olds pointing for this Saturday's Kentucky Derby, was only a few hours away at nearby Churchill Downs.
The 70-year-old trainer of Devil's Bag, the odds-on favorite for the Run for the Roses in the Agua Caliente Future Book and the short-priced favorite for the Trial, had been improving steadily since Stephens' hospitalization six days before. "He was kind of on his toes today," Lucille reported before the Trial. "He looked brighter, more like himself."
So now there Stephens was, in his hospital room, surrounded by six floral arrangements—none of them, incidentally, included roses—waiting to see Devil's Bag on television in the colt's final prep for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby Trial was to reveal whether the Bag, syndicated for $36 million after a 1983 season in which he was acclaimed as the second coming of Secretariat, was really back after his humiliating fourth-place finish in the nine-furlong Flamingo Stakes on March 3 and his meaningless 15-length victory over four wingless crows in the Forerunner Purse at Keeneland on April 19.
As Lucille was about to leave his room on Saturday, Woody told her, "I want you to go to the races today. Don't worry about me. Go to the track and watch the race and come back and tell me what happened."
What happened was this: Devil's Bag, though he won the Trial by 2� lengths over a colt named Biloxi Indian, effectively removed himself from any serious consideration as a Kentucky Derby candidate. His time for the mile was 1:35[3/5], extremely modest given the slickness of the racing surface, and Devil's Bag was able to do that only after jockey Eddie Maple lashed him eight times with the whip through the stretch. "I never had to hit him like that before," a subdued Maple said afterward.
What made the performance even more revealing was that Devil's Bag never really shook off Biloxi Indian, who only recently recovered from a virus and whose indulgences at the hay net inspired this from his trainer, Dianne Carpenter, on the eve of the Trial: "Frankly, I think he looks fat. Right now his whole life revolves around food...how to get it, how to keep it. He thinks about it all the time, and it shows in his massive build."
So a $36 million horse was under desperate pressure to beat a fat one going a flat mile at a moderate clip around one turn at Churchill Downs. To make matters worse, the Bag was veering out near the end, a sign he was either sore-legged or very tired. He certainly was tired, his nostrils blowing and flaring as he entered the winner's circle. "He blew like a train all the way back to the stable area," said Ron McKenzie, his exercise rider, who accompanied him to the barn. "He got tired today. Real tired."
Nor was this an unexpected turn. Two days before the Trial, in his final blowout for the race, Devil's Bag walked to the racetrack looking dull and unhappy, moving without bounce or verve. He worked a half mile in an extremely mediocre 48[3/5] seconds, and he came back to the barn puffing and blowing, a sign of a lack of fitness. His temporary trainer, Mike Griffin, said this was the result of his being inadvertently fed too much hay. This was true. Griffin is a good, conscientious horseman, but he had been thrust suddenly into the limelight, and surely Stephens' presence was missed around the barn. So the Bag came to the Trial off a poor workout, and he ran like a horse barely capable of going a mile, much less the Derby's mile and a quarter, and this off an easy first quarter in 23[2/5].
"If someone had really been buzzing along with that horse, putting pressure on him, he'd have had all he could do to beat Biloxi Indian," said Harold Rose, the trainer of the stretch-running Derby candidate Rexson's Hope. Stephens, who's expected to leave the hospital to saddle both Devil's Bag and Swale, his other Derby horse, saw enough on television to convince him. "Swale's the horse to beat now," Stephens said. "I believe he is."
There was speculation after the Trial that the Bag wouldn't run in the Derby—that Stephens would withdraw the colt rather than risk humiliating him—but the trainer said he intends to dress Devil's Bag up and send him to the dance. "Any horse that tries to run with him early will be in trouble," he said.