Saddling Up: the Song for Woody Stephens (a tribute to Hall of Fame trainer, Woodford Cephas Stephens)
There are moments in time that stand still, when you’re able to turn back the clock, able to return to that memory like it was yesterday. I’m able to recall the intensity of the crowd, smell the mix of food, beer, cigars, horses and feeling the anticipation that something monumental was about to take place. I’m relaying my afternoon at the Travers Race which featured the rematch of Affirmed and Alydar in August of 1978 in Saratoga Springs, NY. This race is often tagged as the Mid-Summer Derby. It was a further extension of the intense rivalry of the Triple Crown races, where Affirmed squeaked out each of his victories by thin margins from Alydar.
Prior to that year I had been hanging out with some friends who had horses, but were into jumping and dressage, which differ greatly from the horse racing world, despite many thoroughbreds coming off the track to adapt to these equine endeavors. Occasionally I would get to hop on. There was just something gripping about being with the horses. Perhaps the power they exude or how they display their own personalities, much like us. Watching them gallop or munching on some hay against the backdrop of mist in the morning sun allows for their presence to be even more compelling.
Back when I was a teen our family would sometimes go to the New York State Fair. My parents would like going into the various displays, checking out the latest gadgetry or grabbing a hot dog, but for me, I just wanted to hang out where the equestrian events were and watch them warm up outside the arena.
Drifting back to the 1978 Travers Race, it was an electric day and I knew next to nothing about horse racing, but I had seen the Triple Crown races on TV. We went because a woman that was staying at a camp at the lake described her time at the track and asked if I had ever been? When I said, “No”, she said, “You should try going at least once.” That began my journey into horse racing and I began going to every Travers Race for 20 plus years straight. There are some terrific memories attached to those days. But it was that first time at the Travers that really set the tone. Affirmed was disqualified and Alydar was placed first. It was a good thing for me, because when driving home that evening I had just enough money to pay the Thruway toll and probably no more than $2 in my pocket with my van running on fumes.
You couldn’t be around horse racing back then and not hear the names D. Wayne Lukas, Laz Barrera, Woody Stephens and others. Each summer we spend a couple weeks at a lake that is a little less than an hour away from the track. Many a morning I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning and head to the track to take photos of the horses working out. Each morning at the Oklahoma training track I would wait for the sun to rise and take scads of photos. Eventually I’d make it to the main track and find Woody Stephens watching and evaluating the horses in his care. He’d look up at the clocker and wait for them to give him the time of the horses’ work. More often than not he’d pull his horse up to the fence and just carry on conversations with the the morning rail birds. He just seemed like a “regular” guy who loved to chat, boast on his horses and truly be an ambassador for the sport. It wasn’t hard to gravitate toward admiration for him and rooting for his horses to win. To top things off, I doubt there will be any trainer in my lifetime and beyond who will ever train five consecutive Belmont winners, let alone win five Belmont Stakes races period.
From 1988 through until 1995 our group, Sunup, had been working on an album. It was titled, Saratoga Sunrise, and included a number of songs descriptive of the horse racing world. I had been working on a tribute for Woody by way of writing a song. To this day there is probably no other song that I’ve spent more time developing. There were verses I scrapped and numerous rewrites. Once in the recording studio, it was no different. We spent hours recording the song and it went down on tape. Digital was about to hit in a couple years. There are many intricacies that are woven into the production, that in order to fully appreciate the subtleties you’d probably have to listen more than once and be under a set of headphones as well. There was no automated sound board, so it was all hands-on deck. The actual recording process took almost eighteen hours and it took nearly the same amount of time just mixing the track. I must have listened to those mixes over one thousand times. I was determined to make it as close to the mix I had envisioned as possible, and I think the results show. Everyone performed well and the vocal harmonies worked out well.
When the final mix was complete I mailed a cassette copy to Woody. One day after teaching guitar I came home and the answering machine was blinking, so I pressed play and heard the voice of Woody Stephens saying, in his slight southern accent, “Hi, this is Woody Stephens, and I’m trying to reach Garry Manuel.” I’m quite certain that I was beaming. I probably played the message several times.
About a month later I was in Saratoga at the track and I introduced myself to Sandy Bruno, who was one of the women working for Woody. She said, “He loves the song and listens to it in his car. He’d love to meet you.” So, my wife and I went back to the barn area and met Woody. One of my pastimes is shooting photos, so I had my camera with me. Of course, the film jammed on the spool, but at least a portion of the photograph of Woody and I came out. Honestly, that remains a huge highlight in my life, both in terms horse racing and songwriting. That was also the year the horse he trained, Fortyniner, narrowly missed winning the Kentucky Derby, but squeaked out an incredibly exciting victory in the Travers. That was one heck-of-a thrilling summer!
My wife and I frequently visit Saratoga Springs in the off season. Often, we’ll visit the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. The first time we visited we were both so moved by the short twenty-minute film that they showed throughout the day in the Hall of Fame. The photography, commentary and music drew you into the captivating world of horses and racing. The film artistically took you from the birth of a foal, to the racetrack and the retirement of the horse. We’d both get choked up watching this unique and wonderful film. We never grew tired of viewing It year after year. Apparently, the film ran its course (pardon the pun) and has yet to be restored. This was one of the most compelling presentations in giving people a glimpse at the beauty and power of horse racing. In my mind this feature served as one of the most powerful draws and tributes to horse racing. To this day, I’ve not seen anything quite like it.
As we finished recording the song, Woody, I couldn’t help but think the song could provide the backdrop to the story of Woody Stephens and that it could well make for another terrific short film serving to draw more people to the sport. I actually think Woody’s book, “Guess I’m Lucky”, might even work as a full-length movie. Even at this time, I still can visualize a feature on Woody being part of the more captivating presentations at the Hall of Fame. That remains my hope to this day. With the rough year that horse racing has encountered, it just might be the winning ticket in elevating the stature of the sport.
The power and beauty of a song can be much like that of horseracing.