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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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Hancock mentioned to de Kwiatkowski that two of the shares remained unsold. "When you see what the horse does today," de Kwiatkowski said, "you'll have people running through your door to get to them. I was offered more than a million for one share this morning, and I'm not selling under any circumstances!"

A November wind came in from the north and combed through the trees that rise above the stallion paddocks of Claiborne Farm. John Sosby, the farm manager, raised his collar against the wind and strode quickly past the headstones of the stallion cemetery. Under each headstone is buried not the whole remains of a stallion, but rather the symbols of his life on the racetrack and at stud—his feet, heart, head and testicles. The names on the headstones spoke of why Claiborne has become the standard for the industry: Bold Ruler, Nasrullah, Princequillo, Sir Gallahad III, Buckpasser, Hoist the Flag. A stallion Hall of Fame.

Sosby stepped through a gate and walked to a paddock above the cemetery, the paddock where Buckpasser had gamboled for years. The bay stallion living there now, his mane blown by the wind, raised his head, pranced briefly away and then bounded toward Sosby in a gallop. Conquistador Cielo drew to a halt in front of the fence, his nostrils flaring. Three stallion grooms approached him from behind, saying, "Whoa." The colt saw them, turned and galloped off around them. Sosby laughed. "He wants to play and show off for you now," he said. "He's that way."

Though caked with mud, Cielo looked fine, alive and alert. He had passed his breeding tests; in February he would begin his new career.

"Yeah, this is a good horse," said Sosby, watching Cielo cavort. "He's going to grow. He's going to fill out. He's going to make a good-looking horse."

Of course, there have been no breeders beating down Claiborne's doors in the wake of the Travers; in fact, one syndicate member pulled out after the race, leaving Claiborne to buy his share. The race left a residue of second-guessing and second thoughts.

Stephens now regrets having run Cielo that day. "I'm still kicking myself," he says. Fearing Aloma's Ruler, Stephens instructed Maple to take hold of Cielo and sit back. But his 34-second workout had put a blaze in the colt's eyes. In the race he fought Maple and in the process tired himself to no purpose. There's hardly a more counterproductive endeavor in race riding than a jockey fighting a rank horse. But Stephens' orders were to keep Cielo off Aloma's Ruler. Unfortunately, Maple followed them to the letter. "I blew it," Stephens says. "That was me."

There's no way of knowing how much Cielo's ankle was hurting, if at all, but Stephens didn't like the way Cielo was moving as he ran into the backstretch. "He wasn't 100 percent. I should have skipped the Travers and run in the Woodward at Belmont Park two weeks later."

Jones is still kicking himself, too, for taking half a share. "I just feel like a dumbbell for having done it," he says. "I should have listened to those two trainers because I've got enough sense to know that if the sonofabitch didn't win the Travers on Saturday, on Monday morning his value wasn't going to be anything close to what it had been. I felt at the time it wasn't a good investment because I didn't think there could be any upside potential. Who in the hell thinks a share at $910,000 is going to enhance in value much? It's only got one way to go, and that's down. Oh, hell, it's over and done with. We just have to live with it now. There's no use hollering foul. I blame myself. I'm more than 21, you know. Nobody made me do anything."

Fasig-Tipton President Finney, a knowledgeable appraiser of a thoroughbred's value, estimates that the Travers diminished Cielo's worth by 15%, or about $125,000 a share. "The charisma that the horse developed in those three races [the Met, Belmont and Dwyer] fell with a thump," Finney says. "When you're dealing with a colt that high in value and the beast proves he's mortal, without wings, it takes some of the gloss off."

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