What we are going to do here is go back. Back to a time when racing was much more mainstream. Racetracks were crowded during the week and every Saturday was like a holiday. The atmosphere was almost always electric, especially on the weekends.
Why stop there? We are all thinking about the upcoming Belmont Stakes and the chance to see Justify possibly become the next Triple Crown winner. The undercard stakes are also exciting, and they include the Metropolitan Mile, long the staple of Memorial Day in the Sport of Kings, but now run on the Belmont undercard. This at first seemed foreign to me, but with the trend towards the “super cards” we might as well embrace the now. It won’t change anytime soon, and it is still The Met Mile.
I’ve seen many things in the Sport of Kings. Four Triple Crown winners, countless champions, training feats that will never be repeated, ever. I’ve seen the ones who made it and the ones who could have but didn’t. I’ve seen and experienced the highest highs, and the lowest lows. One thing I will never ever forget is a 5-day span back in 1982. Racing was in full swing. Belmont was a crowded place. History was being made and a feat for the ages was about to take place.
I was at Belmont Park that Memorial Day, like I had been many before that and after as well. I knew I was going to see a fast, and what I thought special horse, run in the Met Mile. I had been high on him since I watched him break his maiden under an old friend, jockey, Larry Saumell.
He was a 150K yearling in the barn of Woody Stephens, one of the best ever, and particularly sharp with two-year old’s. There was no Lasix permitted in New York back then, but had there been there is a good chance Woody would not have used it. He was as hay, oats, and water as it got. On this day the horse would be ridden by his trainer’s go to rider Eddie Maple. What I did not know, and maybe nobody but Woody Stephens did, was that the racing world was about to see one of the greatest Metropolitan Miles and subsequently Belmont Stakes in the history of our great game.
Both races have had their share of great and memorable editions. 1982 was special. Conquistador Cielo was a three-year old facing a full field of accomplished older horses in the Metropolitan Mile. The field lined up against him included fast older sprinters like Pass the Tab, Star Gallant, Always Run Lucky, and Maudlin. There were also accomplished older routers like Silver Buck, Thirty-Eight Paces, Globe, and Princelet. This would be no easy task on paper, but despite that, Conquistador Cielo was sent to post a 2-1 favorite.
It was a gray day that Monday, but the looming rain held off. I bet everything I had to my name on Conquistador Cielo that Memorial Day. It wasn’t that much, but being everything I was worth, it felt like a lot. It was one of those races where you just did not feel like you could lose. You know the type.
The track was not particularly fast that Monday. It did not matter to Conquistador Cielo. He broke well under Eddie Maple and after stalking the pace for a bit he simply annihilated the quality field of older horses, running the mile in 22.4, 45, 1.09, and finishing in 1.33. As we know, that is racehorse time on any track and he left the older horses far behind.
Following the race, the talk was of what a great performance everyone saw, and of course the midsummer Derby as it was called, The Travers. Woody initially said the Belmont was not under consideration. That was no surprise as coming back in just 5 days off the fastest mile ever run at Belmont at the time seemed almost unheard of. Yes, Cielo ran the fastest mile ever at Belmont to date when he ran away with the Met.
By Wednesday, just two days following the Metropolitan, something changed. Woody announced the colt had come out of his last race so good, he was going to go in the Belmont. Almost everyone was surprised.
Again, this would be no walk in the park on paper. The Belmont field included that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Gate Del Sol, and the Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler. The always highly regarded Linkage was also in there. You had the Derby, Preakness and Met Mile winners in the Belmont.
Conquistador Cielo was the morning line favorite off the record breaking Met at 3-1. I thought that was generous. My opinion was he was just too fast for these horses and the only question was the mile and a half. He was by Mr. Prospector, I wasn’t worried despite the distance.
“They won’t beat what they can’t catch” I thought.
The Friday before the race I was at Belmont. Eddie Maple went down on an Elliott Burch horse, maybe Snow Girl or something like that, I can’t recall. It was a nasty spill that landed Eddie in the hospital and prompted Woody to switch to Laffit Pincay for the Belmont. Laffit was one of my favorite riders to bet on.
It was the day before the race and “no shot he loses” I thought to myself.
It poured Friday night and Saturday. The track was sloppy. I still had the large part of my winnings from the Met. It wasn’t enough. I went to the second floor Clubhouse bar and found Frankie the shy. He was always there. I borrowed 5K. There was no pick 3’s or 4’s or pick 6’s back then. That resulted in a lot of money in the win pool, along with the exactas, and also made it hard to move the pool, especially on a big day like this. It still wasn’t enough.
Prior to the race the odds surprised me. Conquistador Cielo was not getting the respect I thought he deserved. Linkage was a 2-1 favorite off mostly hype in my opinion and I thought he had no chance to beat Cielo. Conquistador Cielo was what looked like a cold 4-1 second choice, but I saw it as Christmas in June. The board exhilarated me, and he was only 4-1.
My Dad was behind the mutual windows on the third floor in the Clubhouse working. He knew how I felt about the race. I went to his window and asked, “How much can we bet?”
He bet $500 and said, “We’re partners.”
I must have looked disappointed. He bet another $500 and said, “Is that better?”
I replied, “A little,” and then bet all the Frankie shy money, along with my winnings from Monday. Everything.
I let my Dad hold the tickets and said, “Now we’re partners.”
That’s how we did it right until the end. I had no money for Sunday’s Daily Racing Form if I was wrong. Why would I need it anyway?
My Dad was a Father, so he said, “Is that necessary? Hold your money, I bet for us.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
He replied, “I hope we don’t need a graveyard, because if you’re wrong we’re buried.”
Same four words, “Don’t worry about it.”
I made my way down to the rail to try and watch. There was maybe 5 minutes to post. Despite the rain, I couldn’t find a good spot. I went back to the TV’s in the grandstand. I wasn’t feeling it. I walked briskly outside to the back park and the paddock mutual windows in the rain. Perfect, my own TV. Wet, but a good view. A close friend of mine, Anthony, was standing against the wall trying to keep dry until the race went off.
“Who do you like?” he asked?
“Cielo can’t lose,” I replied.
He had a $50-win ticket on Aloma’s Ruler because our mutual friend, Vinnie Cotronio, had Cowboy Jack Kaenel’s book for a while and told him he would win.
“Cancel that ticket unless you want to tear it up,” I said. He listened and put an extra $50 on Conquistador Cielo. Now he had $100 to win. The odds held at 4-1.
What a difference a turn can make. Drawn wide, as he was in the Met, Cielo had to hustle heading for the clubhouse turn and Pincay kept him wide, similar to how Angel Cordero Jr. kept Bold Forbes out in the middle of the track. Going into that Clubhouse turn I thought he would be clear and he wasn’t. The thought of what if I was wrong set in as I heard track announcer, Marshall Cassidy, say something about a pace battle. Midway on the turn I remained concerned, but hope was not yet abandoned. By the time they came out of the turn and hit the backstretch I told Anthony who had grabbed me around the shoulder and was holding me tight, “We’re home!” He pulled tighter.
Conquistador Cielo romped and splashed home in the slop running the 6th fastest Belmont, at the time, and the fastest ever over a sloppy track. He literally won off the screen. He carried 15 more pounds than he did when he won the Met Mile against older horses just 5 days earlier. He beat these horses as easily as he beat the others. He became only the 4th horse that century to win the Belmont Stakes by more than 10 lengths joining Man O War, Count Fleet, and Secretariat.
It was an incredible performance by any standard, only amplified by the record breaking performance just 5 days prior. It is arguably the best 5 days run by any horse in our great game. Woody Stephens would go on to win the next 4 Belmont Stakes, setting an unprecedented and practically unbreakable record of 5 Belmonts in a row. Even in today’s age of the super trainer, and large majorities of high priced horses going to a handful of trainers, nobody can even approach this feat.
The two races took a toll on Conquistador Cielo. They almost always do, no matter how easy they may look. He was able to win the Jim Dandy, while pointing for the Travers, but didn’t quite hold up. He was beaten in the Travers by Runaway Groom, which is another great story for another day. For now, let’s just look back on something we will likely never see repeated by another racehorse.
Ah, what a great game when you’re right.