Of course, Woody Stephens got in the last word. He's 68 years old, has been training racehorses for 41 of those years and has been a member of the racing Hall of Fame for the last six, so he knows what he's talking about, first or last. Last Saturday afternoon, after having been second-guessed all week, the man earned his say. Stephens set down his Scotch on the rocks and, eyes flashing, held forth. His grin was wicked.
"I'm the speed, I'm in the catbird seat," Stephens said. "Last Monday he [Conquistador Cielo] went a mile in 1:33. Today he won at a mile and a half! This is the best colt in America! He might be the Three-Year-Old of the Year. He might end up the Horse of the Year! He might even be the Sprinter of the Year. Before the year's over, he might win everything."
An hour earlier, Stephens had sent out Conquistador Cielo for the 114th running of the Belmont Stakes and had watched him hang 10 other colts out to dry in a smashing 14�-length victory in the last and longest of Triple Crown races. Behind Conquistador Cielo, left fairly twisting in the drizzle and wind, was the Kentucky Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, who passed tired horses in the stretch to come in second. The Preakness winner, Aloma's Ruler, no doubt asked to run once too often, was a dim bulb, finishing ninth, while the place horse in the Preakness, Linkage, who was the 2-1 Belmont favorite, was a fading fourth behind the 30-1 long shot Illuminate.
Not since Secretariat's 31-length triumph in 1973 has a Belmont Stakes been won more commandingly. And with that win Conquistador Cielo made clear that he was not only the nation's best 3-year-old but also, quite probably, the best racehorse in the land. He has tremendous natural speed, and he showed himself to be a stout, tractable animal who can carry it the classic distance. A good horse? Certainly. A great horse? Perhaps. This dude can really run.
As remarkable as Cielo's performance in the Belmont was the tortuous road he took to get there. This is a colt who, just three months ago, was so sore he could barely walk. There were mornings in March when Stephens couldn't get him out of his stall.
This is the colt who, just five days before the Belmont, carried a feathery 111 pounds and fricasseed a field of older horses in the venerable Metropolitan Handicap, winning the mile race by 7� lengths in 1:33 flat, the fastest eight furlongs ever run on the main track at 77-year-old Belmont Park.
This is also the colt who, off his pedigree, was no more bred to want 1� miles than he was bred to want Pia Zadora. He's a son of the impetuous Mr. Prospector, a fast horse who sires fast kids, but kids not known for going a distance.
Finally, this is the colt who, on the eve of the Belmont, lost his regular rider, Eddie Maple, when Maple suffered a broken rib in a spill at Belmont, forcing Stephens to summon Laffit Pincay Jr. from the West Coast. Pincay, by the way, was bumped from the 10 p.m. Los Angeles to New York flight, but caught a later one to Boston, where he spent part of Belmont Day at Logan Airport. In all his years as a leading jockey, Pincay had never won a Triple Crown race, and he had never been on Cielo's back until Stephens lifted his boot on Belmont Day. For Stephens himself, the Belmont was the only Triple Crown race he hadn't won.
The Cielo saga began when Henryk deKwiatkowski, a Polish-born aviation executive who lives in New York City, paid $150,000 for the bay colt at the 1980 Saratoga yearling sale. He named him Conquistador Cielo—Sky Conqueror in Spanish—after an aviation club, Conquistadores del Cielo, of which deKwiatkowski is a member.
Cielo showed great lick as a 2-year-old. Last July he stomped a field of maidens at Belmont in his second start, winning off by eight, and in his third go he won the Saratoga Special, beating Herschel Walker and Timely Writer. In the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, he got bumped and finished fourth, beaten by only a neck, but now Stephens found a swelling on the left foreleg, which turned out to be a small V-shaped fracture called a "saucer" fracture. "A very painful thing," says Stephens, who promptly shelved the colt.