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The Star That Fell To Earth
William Nack
December 20, 1982
Like a meteor, Conquistador Cielo, here gamboling at stud, flared brilliantly. Then, in a race he shouldn't have run, he imperiled his syndicate's $36.4 million gamble
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December 20, 1982

The Star That Fell To Earth

Like a meteor, Conquistador Cielo, here gamboling at stud, flared brilliantly. Then, in a race he shouldn't have run, he imperiled his syndicate's $36.4 million gamble

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Conquistador Cielo was put in Trainer Woody Stephens' charge when he was two, and it wasn't long before Cielo began to show signs of having the same kind of lick his sire had. Almost a year to the day after de Kwiatkowski bought him, he won the Saratoga Special, beating Herschel Walker by half a length. When, following a fourth-place finish in the Sanford Stakes, Stephens discovered that Cielo was suffering from a V-shaped break, called a "saucer" fracture, of his left front cannon bone, he stopped him for the year.

Stephens worked diligently to get Cielo ready for the 1982 spring classics, but all hopes of his racing for the Triple Crown were abandoned when the saucer fracture reappeared in February. There were days when the colt was so sore that Stephens couldn't get him out of his stall. Desperate, ready to try anything, Stephens took the advice of a New York veterinarian and began using a gadget called a Bi-Osteogen machine, which promotes the healing of fractures by stimulating calcification through electrical impulses.

Three months later the fracture had healed. A pheenom was ready to be born. After Cielo had won two allowance races, the second by 11 lengths against older horses at Belmont, Stephens saddled him for the Metropolitan Mile. Merely toying with the best older handicap horses in the East, Cielo won by 7¼ lengths in 1:33 flat, the fastest mile ever run in New York. The brilliance of the victory fired the memories of even the most veteran handicappers.

"An astounding race," said Pat Lynch, a former New York racing official and longtime student of handicapping whose voice is normally restrained in judging horses' performances. "One of the all-time great Metropolitans. He ran like the wind. Just extraordinary."

Five days later, in defiance of the colt's pedigree, Stephens rolled up his sleeves and did what breeders were urging him not to do. He saddled Cielo for the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. Stephens is recognized not only as a master horseman but also as an uncommonly astute handicapper who knows how to place a horse, when to go and when to back off. He learned that end of the business while training in the 1940s for Jules Fink, a New York handicapper of almost legendary reputation.

"Best I've ever been around," Stephens says. "I learned the value of a horse, how to place a horse. Jules built into my head that if a horse could go a solid mile, he could go as far as any horse could go. If he's a wild, speed-crazy horse, that's different, but if you can get him to relax, he can go it."

All Stephens heard the week before the Belmont were cries of disbelief. How could he hope to get a son of Mr. Prospector to go the Belmont distance, especially after having seen Cielo run a scorching mile just five days before? The pedigree alone, quite apart from the distance involved, was filled with stop signs. No less an authority than Leon Rasmussen, the respected bloodlines writer for the Daily Racing Form, wrote before the Belmont, "Of course, exceptions make the rule, but a victory by Conquistador Cielo would be an inexplicable, stunning upset [of breeding theory]...."

None of this dissuaded Stephens, a down-home country boy from Midway, Ky. He saw the spot and liked what he saw. He hadn't become the leading trainer of stakes winners in New York and a member of racing's Hall of Fame by cowering in corners. "If you snooze, you lose," he likes to say. "You have to keep going. If you want to be a big flea, you must ride a big dog."

The big dog turned out to be a lot bigger than even Stephens had imagined him to be. Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., substituting for the injured Maple in the Belmont, relaxed Cielo by keeping him off the rail—away from other horses, as Stephens had instructed him to do—and went along for the ride. The performance was electric. Moving with long, powerful, graceful strides, Cielo crushed his 10 rivals. It was suggested that Cielo might be a great racehorse, one of those rare animals who can run as fast as horses can run and handle the classic distances, too.

Stephens described Cielo as the best racehorse he'd ever trained, better even than Bald Eagle. Abandoning restraint, Lynch ranked Cielo with Native Dancer and Secretariat as the best 3-year-olds he'd ever seen. Breeding theorists, sent reeling by the Belmont, went further into the past than that. At a loss to explain the phenomenon, Rasmussen finally reached back more than a century, to one of the best racers and sires of all time, to extract a possible parallel. He wrote: "[Cielo] may just be the most important mutation to appear in the thoroughbred breed since St. Simon [foaled in England in 1881] became known as 'the prototype of the modern thoroughbred' through first his racing and then his breeding accomplishments. Conquistador Cielo may just be the most significant sire prospect in the last 100 years."

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