Jul 17, 2008


Back in the mid-seventies I came down from Vancouver to Keeneland to see what I could learn from the July sale. One early morning I came across Woody Stephens and had the temerity to ask him if I might join him as he made his rounds. Only later did I discover that Woody loved an audience I was grateful for the opportunity to see him in action.

One thing I remember him saying was to take time to peer in the stall when shopping for a yearling. “You want to see if he’s a stall walker. If so, the bedding will be disturbed all over the stall,” he warned.

When Woody inspected a yearling he would lift up the tail and drop it from shoulder height.
“A horse has to have some snap to his tail,” he said. “Otherwise there may be some weakness in his spine. A horse has to have a strong spine. Stay away from them if they don’t . I do like coon-tailed horses though. They’re runners.”

Not long after I returned to Canada I was asked to go to a sale at Hollywood Park and try to buy a 3-year-old by Ack Ack. Charlie Whittingham trained the horse for a man who had died. When I arrived in LA I noticed that the colt had virtually no tail, perhaps several inches of stubble where the tail was missing.

I called my client and discussed the situation, mindful of Woody Stephens’ dictum on the matter.It also seemed odd to me that the horse would not have been already sold inside the Whittingham barn. I advised the client to pass. He said try to buy him.

I bought the horse for $45,000 and shipped him to Exhibition Park where he raced soon after arrival. The gates opened and he took off down the track from an outside post position. He ran scarcely 100 yards before he broke down behind with a fractured pelvis.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But I couldn’t help but think of Woody’s tutelage about healthy spines.

A couple of decades passed and I met Woody once again in the Woodbine turf club. He was having lunch with his former top assistant Phil Gleaves. We were all in Toronto for the Molson Million .A raging storm had emptied the place and we had it to ourselves.

Woody wanted to bet every race and relied on my handicapping. We made a few dollars but the real payoff was listening to his stories. He could be a little redundant about his five straight Belmont victories, noting that “I had the exacta in all five”. It left you wondering which meant the most to him, the Belmonts or his betting prowess.