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Hall of Fame Trainer Stephens Dies

August 22, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ Woody Stephens, the Hall of Fame trainer who won an incredible five consecutive Belmont Stakes victories, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 84.

Stephens died of complications from chronic emphysema at 3:20 a.m. EDT at the Heartland Health Care Center in Miami Lakes, said Bill Tippins, administrator of the facility.

Since 1990, when he underwent heart bypass surgery, Stephens has walked with an oxygen tank for the emphysema.

``Churchill Downs and racing lost a great friend and a great horseman,″ said Thomas Meeker, president and CEO of Churchill Downs. ``Woody is the classic American success story. He came from humble beginnings and rose to the very top of his profession. For years, Woody was the measure of success for a trainer.″

Stephens was inducted into thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame in 1976. But his biggest triumphs _ the record five Belmont victories, an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top trainer in 1983 and most of his best runners _ were yet to come.

``He was one of the most renowned trainers in the United States, and one of the most respected horsemen in thoroughbred racing,″ said Kenny Noe, the chairman of the New York Racing Association. ``His accomplishments, especially his five (consecutive), Belmont Stakes wins, I don’t believe will ever be exceeded.″

In all, Stephens trained 11 Eclipse Award-winning horses, including 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Swale, 1983 juvenile champion Devil’s Bag and 1982 Horse of the Year Conquistador Cielo.

Stephens’ wife, Lucille, started talking retirement in the mid-1970s, and he seriously considered it in 1984, after broken ribs, pleurisy, pneumonia, the death of Swale and the forced retirement of Devil’s Bag with injuries. But Stephens didn’t finally retire until last September, after 61 years at the track.

There were just too many good 2-year-olds coming up, and too many owners who were good friends.

``I’ve been lucky,″ he said after being named trainer of the decade for the 1980s. ``I guess I’ve had about as many good horses in my hands as any man.″

But retire?

``Not as long as my health holds out,″ he said. ``You’ve got to have something to get up in the morning for.″

The day after Creme Fraiche gave Stephens his fourth straight Belmont victory, he noted that there were 20 well-bred 2-year-olds in his barn, all potential Derby shots in 1986.

None won the Derby, but Danzig Connection gave him his fifth straight Belmont victory, and that was worth sticking around for.

``I’m so proud of that,″ he said. ``In 118 years, no one had won five, much less five in a row.″

His decades of success made Stephens a wealthy man. His breeding interests in Devil’s Bag and Conquistador Cielo alone were worth about $1 million each, and the trainer traditionally gets a 10-percent cut of a horse’s winnings.

Stephens, whose stable won $5.2 million in 1984 and more than $4 million in 1987 and ’88, drove a silver Mercedes two-seater and had homes in New York and Florida.

But he was most comfortable in a weathered fedora and rumpled slacks, lounging on a shabby cot on the backside with a mug of coffee at one hand and a cat at the other. Or on his knees in a stall, running his gnarled but knowledgeable fingers up and down the fragile legs of a thoroughbred. Or at the clubhouse bar, tossing down a whiskey and water.

``There’s a lot of ups and downs in this game,″ he said, this time with a sad smile. ``But what else is there to do? Like Eddie Arcaro told me when he quit, he said, `How much golf can you play?′ And I don’t even play golf.″

Stephens loved to talk, and he was always happy to list his accomplishments. He had a crowd at Keeneland in stitches in 1985 when a dinner speaker sang his praises and Stephens interrupted with the exact numbers.

Stephens, born in the Kentucky Bluegrass town of Stanton, got into racing at age 13, breaking yearlings. He went on to become a jockey, but eventually became too heavy to ride and switched to training.

``My biggest regret? That I never learned to be a better rider,″ he said.

After five years as an assistant, he struck out on his own in 1940. He didn’t saddle his first winner, Bronze Bugle, for three more years. His first stakes triumph was with Saguaro in the 1945 Excelsior Handicap.

Stephens won his first Triple Crown race, the Preakness Stakes, with Blue Man in 1952. The next, the coveted Kentucky Derby, took 22 more years.

He won the 100th Derby in 1974 with Cannonade, then took racing’s most coveted prize again 10 years later with the ill-fated Swale. That colt, a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, went on the become the third of Stephens’ five Belmont winners, then died eight days later.

In the 1980s, Stephens seemed to own the third leg of the American Triple Crown. He saddled nine entries for the Belmont in 10 years. Five went on to win: Conquistador Cielo in 1982; Caveat in 1983; Swale; Creme Fraiche, the first gelding to win the 1 1/2-mile classic, in 1985, and Danzig Connection in 1986.

The funeral will be in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday morning. The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the ``Emphysema Foundation.″

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