The Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 21 had been a stirring speed duel. Two colts, Conquistador Cielo and Aloma's Ruler, had battled head and head almost every step of the way; they had set sail together into the first turn and had stayed together down the backside, around the far turn and into the homestretch. Neither had yielded a beat, though the pace and pressure of the duel had brought them both to the cracking point.
Now, after racing nine furlongs, deep into the stretch, with Conquistador Cielo on the inside and Aloma's Ruler lapped on him on the outside, Cielo shoved his head in front for an instant. Then, suddenly, Cielo began to give way. Aloma's Ruler was back at him, nose to nose. The second largest crowd in the history of Saratoga, 41,839, had sent Conquistador Cielo off as the 2-5 favorite, and a roar went up when Aloma's Ruler appeared to have him on the ropes.
There was more riding on Cielo, to be sure, than Jockey Eddie Maple. Over the previous 10 days, Seth Hancock, the 33-year-old president of Claiborne Farm, had sold shares in a Conquistador Cielo syndicate for $36.4 million, making him the most expensive horse in history. In fact, just five hours before the start of the race, Hancock had handed the colt's owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a cashier's check for $6 million to cover the down payment.
Sitting near Hancock in the box-seat section of the clubhouse, watching grimly as the Travers reached its climax, were a number of Cielo's syndicate members, most of them longtime Claiborne clients who, on Hancock's advice and at his urging, had agreed to pay $910,000 apiece, including interest, for shares in the horse, whose value would plummet if he lost this race. Saratoga is known as "the graveyard of favorites," and Hancock had been getting ominous vibes all day. Beyond that, he had good reason to believe that Cielo might not be physically at his best. Still, nothing he felt or knew could have prepared him for what was happening.
Inside the eighth pole, Conquistador Cielo was a beaten horse. As he faded, Aloma's Ruler tired, too, and long shot Runaway Groom came bounding down the middle of the track, passed them both and won. Cielo came in third, beaten a length and a quarter.
Not wanting to face the syndicate members and their questions, a stunned and shaken Hancock left his seat as Cielo hit the wire. He hurried down the clubhouse staircase. Then he turned right and headed through the grandstand, the home of the $2 player. He heard bettors laughing, jeering, crowing the way bettors do. Hancock remembers: "They were saying things like, 'How do you think those stupid sonofabitches that paid $36 million for that horse feel about him now?' I just ducked my head and kept walking. I felt stupid. I felt horrible, about as bad as you can feel, what with all these people who bought a share in the horse, clients of the farm. It was the worst moment in my life."
For Hancock the running of the Travers Stakes brought to a painful end the most difficult and vexing ordeal of his professional career, one in which he ultimately agreed to syndicate a horse for more money than he thought the animal was worth. Conquistador Cielo—the name means "Conqueror of the Sky" in Spanish—was retired the day after the Travers, so the race also concluded one of the strangest and most dramatic careers in the recent history of the American turf.
Six months before, in February, Cielo had been so dead lame that he could barely walk; on May 31 he had run the fastest mile ever in New York; five days after that he had astounded veteran race-trackers by winning the Belmont Stakes by 14 lengths; and two months later he had been syndicated for $36.4 million. Now, on this afternoon, having almost won the Travers five days after his swollen left front ankle had been tapped and injected with cortisone, his racing career was over.
It was fitting that the last scenes of the drama were played out at Saratoga, because that's where it had begun two years before, when de Kwiatkowski paid $150,000 for an attractive, neatly balanced yearling by Mr. Prospector out of K D Princess, a daughter of Bold Commander. Mr. Prospector was a racehorse of boundless speed, a gust of wind in the sprints. At the stud he had, not surprisingly, proven himself to be a sire of horses who preferred sprinting to stretching out. K D Princess was the weaker half of the yearling's pedigree. She had run for several $25,000 claiming tags, not much of a recommendation as a broodmare prospect; when Cielo was foaled, she was unproven as a dam.
In fact, the yearling's pedigree was marginal for the select Saratoga sale. "But he was graded high physically," says John Finney, the head of Fasig-Tipton, the auction house that conducts the Saratoga sales. "A grand-looking horse. He sold on his looks." Lee Eaton, the bloodstock agent who sold the colt for the late Breeder Lewis Iandoli, said that he gave the colt a grade of "B plus" as a yearling and thought he could get $125,000 for him, tops. At the sale on Aug. 8, 1980 de Kwiatkowski took him for $25,000 more than that. "We were tickled to death," said Eaton.
Conquistador Cielo was put in Trainer Woody Stephens' charge when he was two, and it wasn't long before Cielo began to show signs of having the same kind of lick his sire had. Almost a year to the day after de Kwiatkowski bought him, he won the Saratoga Special, beating Herschel Walker by half a length. When, following a fourth-place finish in the Sanford Stakes, Stephens discovered that Cielo was suffering from a V-shaped break, called a "saucer" fracture, of his left front cannon bone, he stopped him for the year.
Stephens worked diligently to get Cielo ready for the 1982 spring classics, but all hopes of his racing for the Triple Crown were abandoned when the saucer fracture reappeared in February. There were days when the colt was so sore that Stephens couldn't get him out of his stall. Desperate, ready to try anything, Stephens took the advice of a New York veterinarian and began using a gadget called a Bi-Osteogen machine, which promotes the healing of fractures by stimulating calcification through electrical impulses.
Three months later the fracture had healed. A pheenom was ready to be born. After Cielo had won two allowance races, the second by 11 lengths against older horses at Belmont, Stephens saddled him for the Metropolitan Mile. Merely toying with the best older handicap horses in the East, Cielo won by 7¼ lengths in 1:33 flat, the fastest mile ever run in New York. The brilliance of the victory fired the memories of even the most veteran handicappers.
"An astounding race," said Pat Lynch, a former New York racing official and longtime student of handicapping whose voice is normally restrained in judging horses' performances. "One of the all-time great Metropolitans. He ran like the wind. Just extraordinary."
Five days later, in defiance of the colt's pedigree, Stephens rolled up his sleeves and did what breeders were urging him not to do. He saddled Cielo for the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. Stephens is recognized not only as a master horseman but also as an uncommonly astute handicapper who knows how to place a horse, when to go and when to back off. He learned that end of the business while training in the 1940s for Jules Fink, a New York handicapper of almost legendary reputation.
"Best I've ever been around," Stephens says. "I learned the value of a horse, how to place a horse. Jules built into my head that if a horse could go a solid mile, he could go as far as any horse could go. If he's a wild, speed-crazy horse, that's different, but if you can get him to relax, he can go it."
All Stephens heard the week before the Belmont were cries of disbelief. How could he hope to get a son of Mr. Prospector to go the Belmont distance, especially after having seen Cielo run a scorching mile just five days before? The pedigree alone, quite apart from the distance involved, was filled with stop signs. No less an authority than Leon Rasmussen, the respected bloodlines writer for the Daily Racing Form, wrote before the Belmont, "Of course, exceptions make the rule, but a victory by Conquistador Cielo would be an inexplicable, stunning upset [of breeding theory]...."
None of this dissuaded Stephens, a down-home country boy from Midway, Ky. He saw the spot and liked what he saw. He hadn't become the leading trainer of stakes winners in New York and a member of racing's Hall of Fame by cowering in corners. "If you snooze, you lose," he likes to say. "You have to keep going. If you want to be a big flea, you must ride a big dog."
The big dog turned out to be a lot bigger than even Stephens had imagined him to be. Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., substituting for the injured Maple in the Belmont, relaxed Cielo by keeping him off the rail—away from other horses, as Stephens had instructed him to do—and went along for the ride. The performance was electric. Moving with long, powerful, graceful strides, Cielo crushed his 10 rivals. It was suggested that Cielo might be a great racehorse, one of those rare animals who can run as fast as horses can run and handle the classic distances, too.
Stephens described Cielo as the best racehorse he'd ever trained, better even than Bald Eagle. Abandoning restraint, Lynch ranked Cielo with Native Dancer and Secretariat as the best 3-year-olds he'd ever seen. Breeding theorists, sent reeling by the Belmont, went further into the past than that. At a loss to explain the phenomenon, Rasmussen finally reached back more than a century, to one of the best racers and sires of all time, to extract a possible parallel. He wrote: "[Cielo] may just be the most important mutation to appear in the thoroughbred breed since St. Simon [foaled in England in 1881] became known as 'the prototype of the modern thoroughbred' through first his racing and then his breeding accomplishments. Conquistador Cielo may just be the most significant sire prospect in the last 100 years."
For anyone involved in breeding and raising thoroughbreds, that was strong stuff, but what had happened was quite extraordinary. Five days before the Belmont, hardly anyone outside of Stephens' shed knew his horse's name, and now Cielo was all that anyone involved in New York racing was talking about. A month later he enhanced his reputation by smoking through three-quarters of a mile in a sensational 1:08 3/5 en route to winning the Dwyer Stakes by four lengths. Stephens then shipped him upstate to Saratoga. That is where the trouble began. And it wasn't confined to Cielo's left foreleg.
Ever since he'd seen Cielo win the Metropolitan, Hancock had wanted to syndicate him and to stand him at Claiborne Farm. The Belmont Stakes merely quickened Hancock's desire for Cielo, and he began figuring in July that he would offer $30 million for the horse when he met de Kwiatkowski at Saratoga to negotiate the sale following the Aug. 8 Jim Dandy Stakes. They had agreed to do no bargaining until then because of tax rules: An owner must keep a horse for two years for profits from his sale to be taxed as capital gains. It would mean a lot of money for de Kwiatkowski. The Jim Dandy would mark two years to the day since he had bought Cielo.
Hancock says that de Kwiatkowski told him on Monday, the first day of the negotiations, that Nelson Bunker Hunt and the Aga Khan had each offered $40 million for the horse. Both men deny ever having made an offer for Cielo. It was, however, already well known that Windfields Farm of Chesapeake City, Md. had offered $33 million. Cielo had an abundance of the one quality American breeders covet in a sire: speed. Cielo also was the son of a brilliant sire, another attractive attribute, and he was a poised, tractable, even-tempered animal, also desirable traits. The one shortcoming, of course, was the weak female line through K D Princess. "I could go higher than $30 million," Hancock told a writer at the Keeneland sales in July, "but I won't. I don't think he's worth it."
Hancock watched Conquistador Cielo win the Jim Dandy by a length. He saw that the colt was unable to shake loose from a horse named Lejoli, but the consensus was that Maple had kept Cielo under tight wraps. But in fact Cielo was beginning to suffer from a problem that would force Stephens to take a calculated risk in bringing the colt to the Travers 13 days later.
On the Monday after the Jim Dandy, Hancock and de Kwiatkowski met at Stephens' barn and then went to the Reading Room. Over breakfast they began negotiating for the syndication of Cielo. Though Hancock knew that de Kwiatkowski had ties to the E.P. Taylor family, which owns Windfields, he says he felt that he had the inside track. Hancock had syndicated Danzig, de Kwiatkowski's dazzling if crippled (from a knee injury in his early training) son of Northern Dancer, and Danzig was still at Claiborne. The farm also boarded de Kwiatkowski's mares. "I figured we had some sort of in," Hancock says.
In background, in personality and in style, the two negotiators offered sharp contrasts. Hancock, a Kentucky native and the son of one of America's most influential breeders, the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, was born and bred to raising thoroughbreds and syndicating stallions. Bull had attracted some of racing's wealthiest clientele to Claiborne, and since World War II it had become one of the most prosperous thoroughbred nurseries in the world, a showcase that was home to fashionably bred mares and the desirable stallions who served them. When Bull died unexpectedly in 1972, the job of running Claiborne devolved upon Seth, then 23, a soft-spoken, intense young man who wore his responsibilities heavily.
The younger Hancock's first major syndication was that of Secretariat in 1973 for $6.08 million, at the time a world-record price. Since then he had syndicated and brought to Claiborne about 15 other stallions. Many of the farm's clients had been doing business there for years, boarding and breeding their mares and patronizing the farm's studs. They viewed Hancock much as they viewed their investment bankers. The relationship was based on trust and a handshake, with the clients seeking Hancock's advice and depending on him to provide investment opportunities—as, for instance, in stallion syndicates.
It was a world the 58-year-old Polish-born de Kwiatkowski (pronounced de-fiat-KAUF-ski) had only recently joined. A romantic figure with a colorful—some say colored—past, de Kwiatkowski recalls the body of his father, an officer in the Polish cavalry, being brought to the family home in Poznan in 1939. He had been shot off his horse and killed by the Germans as he attacked an invading tank with a saber. As a boy of 15, de Kwiatkowski says, he was captured by the Soviets shortly after his father's death and taken by cattle car to a prison camp in Siberia, where he cut down trees and worked in a prison kitchen and from where, he says, he escaped in 1942 and then made his way to England by way of Iran and South Africa. En route, he says, he survived rat bites on a coal barge and the sinking of the Empress of Canada, on which he was a passenger when it was torpedoed off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Once in England, he joined the Polish Squadron of the Royal Air Force. According to an extract of his military record, de Kwiatkowski enlisted in the RAF in April of 1943 and served as a wireless operator.
Tales of his exploits in World War II make marvelous reading. In a recent magazine article that identified him as a Spitfire pilot, de Kwiatkowski was quoted as saying, "Our job was to intercept the V-2 rockets the Germans were hitting England with and tip them off course with our wings. It was delicate work." De Kwiatkowski may have been referring to a tactic used against German buzz bombs, rather than the rockets, but even so it is not at all clear how he came to be at the controls of a Spitfire, a single-seater fighter. In a recent telephone interview, in which he claimed he was reading from the extract of his military record, de Kwiatkowski said he served in the RAF as a copilot as well as a wireless operator. When he later provided the writer with the extract, the document confirmed only that he was a wireless operator, and mentioned nothing about his being a copilot.
The extract also says he joined the Polish armed forces in 1942, at the age of 18, while he was in the Soviet Union. There his remarkable odyssey began; it continued after the war.
He moved to Canada in 1952 and eventually to the U.S., where he joined United Aircraft Export Corp. In 1962, with $3,000 in capital, he founded Kwiatkowski Aircraft, Inc. and set up an office in New York's Rockefeller Center. Since then he has made millions buying, leasing and selling all types of new and used commercial airplanes.
He has been credited with single-handedly bailing out financially teetering Trans World Airlines in 1975. At the time, TWA was in serious need of cash and looking to sell some airplanes. One of de Kwiatkowski's many notable acquaintances, the Shah of Iran, happened to be in the market for aircraft, and de Kwiatkowski brought the two parties together. In fact, the Shah insisted on dealing exclusively through de Kwiatkowski, who hammered out the deal after months of negotiations.
The Shah eventually bought nine TWA 747s for $150 million. When the Shah made the $90 million down payment, he wrote out the check to de Kwiatkowski, who had to endorse it before TWA could cash it. "The sale was a turning point in TWA's fortunes," L. Edwin Smart, chief executive of Trans World Corp., TWA's parent firm, has said. De Kwiatkowski's fee: $15 million.
De Kwiatkowski has also prospered as a horse owner. Since 1976, when he got into the business, he has struck gold three times. First he sold Danzig, whom he bought as a yearling for $310,000, for $2.8 million. De La Rose was purchased for $500,000; a broodmare, she's now valued at $3 million. Then came Conquistador Cielo. De Kwiatkowski is a gregarious, nonstop raconteur with a quick and ready smile—unless, that is, you're sitting across a table from him trying to buy his prized colt for $30 million, as Hancock was last August.
De Kwiatkowski says that his negotiations with Hancock went swimmingly—"Getting agreement with me took exactly 10 minutes," he says. "Absolutely no problem whatsoever"—but Hancock recalls it differently.
Hancock had drawn up his proposal on a yellow legal pad and, upon meeting de Kwiatkowski at the Reading Room, handed it to him to study. Hancock says he offered to syndicate the colt in 40 shares, 10 of which would be retained by de Kwiatkowski, at $30 million, or $750,000 a share, with each purchaser paying $50,000 down per share, $100,000 in January 1983 and then three payments of $200,000 each in the following three years, with 10% interest on the last four payments.
De Kwiatkowski tossed the paper back across the table. "This is meager," he said, "compared to Windfields' offer."
Hancock was startled. "I was surprised at his tone of voice and the way he pitched it back to me," Hancock says. "It was as though I'd insulted him." Hancock said he needed time to think it over, so they set another meeting for the next morning at the Reading Room.
Seeking counsel, Hancock talked to two Claiborne clients he expected would each want to take a share in Cielo. "You like him and we like him, so go on with it," they told him. The next morning Hancock made his second offer: $33 million, or $825,000 a share, with $50,000 down and annual payments of $150,000, $225,000, $200,000 and $200,000. The interest: still 10%.
"You're getting closer," de Kwiatkowski said. The total money was fine, but now de Kwiatkowski wanted it paid more quickly—in four installments instead of five, with $200,000 down from each of the 30 buyers. Hancock says de Kwiatkowski told him that Windfields had proposed giving him $10 million right away. "He was holding my feet to the fire," Hancock says. "I was upset about it, but there was Windfields getting ready to make the deal if I didn't. I couldn't get huffy about it or he'd have said, 'The hell with you. The horse goes to Windfields.' I was between a rock and a hard place."
The following day, Wednesday, Hancock agreed to the accelerated payments, hoping that that would settle the matter. But it didn't. Hancock says de Kwiatkowski now wanted the down payment of $6 million before the Travers. Hancock objected, saying there was no way he could get the money that fast, that it normally takes three or four weeks to get the first payment from the syndicate members. Nonetheless, de Kwiatkowski was adamant on that matter. He also said that 10% interest wasn't enough. He wanted 14%, and he wanted the interest computed and added on as principal. It was a bookkeeping maneuver, but he wanted the total to be $36.4 million.
By now Hancock was beginning to lose patience. "I'd never been involved in anything like this before," he says. "A tough man to do business with. But I just kept thinking about the horse and how close I was to getting him."
That he yielded on each point that Wednesday until he finally had a deal was a reflection of the hype surrounding Cielo and the nature of the place and time that the syndication deal was being negotiated. This was Saratoga in August, when the racing world gathers in one small upstate New York town, a fishbowl that is more a brandy snifter. Everybody is watching everything that goes on, so it's hardly surprising that owners act differently here, and trainers break patterns and train a bit differently here, and horses that ought to win are beaten here: Man o' War, Gallant Fox and Secretariat all lost at Saratoga. "They don't call it the graveyard of favorites for nothing," Hancock says. And horses like Conquistador Cielo are syndicated here for more than they ought to be.
"Things happen up there that never happen anyplace else," says Hancock. "There's always some big scandal up there of some sort. It never fails. Some of the wildest things in the game have happened at Saratoga. Trainers get fired, guys' wives leave them. I believe it's the intense pressure, the intense scrutiny, because everyone in the business is up there. It's just the way Saratoga is. You know, people behave differently when they don't get enough sleep, when they stay up late every night drinking.
"You're under pressure, and the whole world's there looking at you. People do things, they make decisions they normally wouldn't make. I made one. I suppose, if it had been Keeneland in July, I would have taken a step back from the table and said, 'Henryk, you've seen Windfields' offer: Go on with it.' "
But no, they were in Saratoga. "People were coming up to me and saying, 'Conquistador Cielo! We want to take a share!' I was being reminded of that every day I was there. That's why I went on with it. Without people running up to Henryk and saying, 'You've got the greatest horse that ever was, it's just unbelievable what you can get for him!'—without that, he might have been a little more rational in his thinking."
Hancock and de Kwiatkowski shook hands on the deal in Woody's barn that Wednesday morning. It had been a trying three days for Hancock. In syndicating a stallion, he says, he thinks of himself as working both for the horse's owner and for the prospective syndicate members, his job being to work out a deal—the price and the terms of payment—that's comfortable for both sides. He knew the final Cielo agreement—$825,000 a share, with $200,000 up front and 14% interest—would simply be unpalatable to many breeders. It was. Hancock spent the next two days in Saratoga collaring prospective buyers at the races in the afternoons and at the yearling sales at night, apologizing to clients for the price and the terms but asking them to join in anyway.
"That's very, very steep," Dr. John Weber, a client of Claiborne for 15 years, told Hancock. "What do you think?"
"I think it's overpriced, but that's what it is," Hancock told him. Weber took a share.
Among the other old Claiborne clients who bought in were Virginia breeder Bertram Firestone, whose filly, Genuine Risk, won the 1980 Kentucky Derby; and fellow Virginians Paul Mellon, the philanthropist; Alice Mills of Hickory Tree Farm; Mark Hardin of Newstead Farm; and William Haggin Perry, whose ties to the Hancocks go back decades. Ogden Phipps and his son, Ogden Mills Phipps, whose family had boarded its mares at Claiborne for 50 years, went in as partners in a share.
They weren't alone in easing the burden by splitting a share. Martha Gerry, whose great gelding Forego was born at Claiborne, purchased a share in partnership with the Calumet Farm. And Warner Jones and William Farish, who breed horses, joined forces on another. Jones, the owner of Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky., had been warned not to buy one.
"Two trainers called me from New York during Travers week and told me the horse was sore as a boil," Jones says. " 'Warner, don't buy a share in this horse,' they said. I did it because I'm competitive. I didn't want some other commercial breeders leading a yearling by Conquistador Cielo into the Keeneland summer sale with Hermitage not having one. If we didn't have one by Conquistador Cielo, we'd feel bad that the other breeders did have one. You've got to be competitive in this business."
By the time Hancock left Saratoga that weekend, heading for Chicago to see one of his horses run, he had sold 21 of the 30 available shares, but it had been a struggle. Jones wasn't the only breeder to hear the word that Cielo was sore. Rumors to that effect had been flying like kites all week—there were even hints that Cielo might not run in the Travers—and they didn't make the syndication process any easier. In fact, by the time Hancock actually started the selling of shares, the horse was sore.
For months Stephens had been keeping a daily watch on Cielo's left front ankle, tubbing him in hot water to open his pores, then tubbing him in ice, then dressing his ankle in a mud poultice to draw out the heat and keep the ankle tight and cool. The regimen was effective through the spring and summer, until Cielo got to Saratoga, when the strain of his campaign began to tell.
Shortly after the Jim Dandy, Stephens' stable veterinarian, Dr. Robert Fritz, discovered that Cielo had sprained his superficial and middle sesamoidean ligaments. Fritz suspects that it had occurred during the running of the race. There was swelling in the ankle, a filling of the digital flexor tendon sheath with synovial fluid, and considerable heat. On the Wednesday following the Jim Dandy, the day that Hancock began the syndication, Fritz knew there was really no way to relieve the pressure and ease the pain—to get the horse to the Travers sound—except by tapping the ankle, a relatively routine procedure he performs on horses four or five times a month.
Stephens worked Cielo half a mile on Saturday, a week before the Travers. Following the work, Fritz gave the colt a shot of Butazolidin, an anti-inflammatory drug on which a horse is permitted to train, but not race, in New York. On Monday, Stephens worked Cielo again; the colt went three quarters in 1:13, a second slower than Stephens had wanted him to go. "I felt the horse was pulling his punches a little bit," Stephens says. It was after this outing that Jones got the call from the New York trainers warning him away from Cielo.
"We've got to take the pressure off," Stephens told Fritz, "and the only way to take it off is with that needle."
At 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, after the last of the stable hands had left Stephens' barn and drifted off for home and dinner in the warm summer twilight three men, Stephens, Fritz and Assistant Trainer Scotty Penrod, gathered at one end of the deserted barn. Privacy is what Stephens wanted most of all now—no owners, no reporters, no one but Fritz to insert the needle into Cielo's ankle, Stephens himself to hold the light so the doc could see what he was doing and Penrod to hold the horse.
It was four days and 21 hours before post time for the Travers. Stephens had insisted on secrecy for obvious competitive reasons. A healthy Cielo was viewed as a mortal lock to win the Travers, and any sign of weakness or vulnerability could only embolden trainers otherwise wavering on whether to run, to take a shot at whipping the favorite. "You let out one little iota of information about a horse's condition before a race like that, and they jump on you," Stephens says. "So the psychology of the thing is to keep everything as secret as possible."
In fact, Stephens says he didn't even tell de Kwiatkowski about the tap. "He wouldn't have known what I was talking about anyway," Stephens says, a judgment with which de Kwiatkowski agrees. Nor had Stephens said anything to Hancock, for whom he trains horses, though Hancock knew that something was amiss. "I'm not stupid," he says. "I was up there every morning. I knew they were tubbing him, working like hell on that ankle."
Penrod led Cielo from his stall and stood him on a blanket spread out on the dirt floor of the shed. While Stephens illuminated the colt's left foreleg with a drop-cord light, Fritz kneeled down next to Cielo and cleansed the ankle three times, alternately soaping it with a surgical scrub and then rinsing it clean with cotton soaked in an iodine-based solution. That done, Fritz then wrapped the ankle tight in an Ace bandage to put pressure on it and then inserted a hollow one-inch needle about halfway into the digital flexor tendon sheath. Fritz squeezed the ankle, as if milking it, and about six milliliters (ml.) of fluid drained out. It was straw-colored, with no sign of blood and therefore of the more serious problems that hemorrhaging would imply. "A relief," Fritz said.
With the fluid drained, Fritz attached a syringe to the already inserted needle and injected the ankle with a solution containing one ml. of Depo-Medrol, a corticosteroid for long-term therapy, another ml. of Predef, a short-term steroid, and half a ml. of Gentocin, an antibiotic. Fritz then removed the needle, wrapped the ankle in a cotton bandage, and Penrod walked the colt into his stall.
For the time being at least, Cielo was Travers-bound. "Our decision to run had some risk to it," Fritz says. "At the time it seemed like a great deal of risk. Looking back on it, there was a degree of risk there as to whether the horse would make the course, given his condition. It's not the best thing to do to a horse. The best way to go would have been to stop the horse, give him an extended period of rest and then bring him back. But this was the horse's last go-around. It's sort of like playing a quarterback after doing a procedure on his knee to get one more game out of him."
Stephens figured that Cielo could win despite his ailment. "I thought I had to do it, and I thought it would work," he says. "I thought he was that much the best, that he could take the worst of it and win anyway."
Stephens had already decided that the Travers would be Cielo's last race. He and Fritz watched the colt carefully through the final days leading up to Saturday and the race. On Wednesday Fritz gave Cielo a final injection of Bute.
The next day Hancock returned to Saratoga, having sold 28 of the 30 shares. Now, two shy of selling them all, Hancock's drive stalled for good. But slumping sales weren't all that was on Hancock's mind that afternoon. He had heard the rumors about Cielo's condition when shareholder William Farish had slipped into the seat next to him during that day's program of races. Farish told Hancock that he'd heard Cielo had been tapped on Monday.
Hancock sagged. "I was pretty much shell-shocked already," he says. "I'd been battered around so much the previous 10 days I just felt, 'One more blow.' " The next day he asked Fritz about it. The doc confirmed the tap, told him the ankle was fine and added, "I definitely think Saturday should be his last race." That suited Hancock.
On Friday the colt ripped through a three-eighths-of-a-mile workout in 34 seconds, a last mistake. "I didn't mean to blow him out that fast," Woody said. The work had lit Cielo's fire for the Travers, bringing him to his toes, probably too much so. But the ankle was cool. "No signs of fluid there," Fritz says. "The ankle was tight. We flexed him, and he flexed sound on it." They decided to run Conquistador Cielo in the Travers.
At 1 p.m. on Travers day, Hancock and de Kwiatkowski met in the Saratoga offices of Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association, and Hancock handed de Kwiatkowski a check for $6 million, the Farm's money, as down payment. De Kwiatkowski took it, announced that he trusted Claiborne's lawyers, who had drawn up papers for the syndication, and signed them without reading them. "It's been good doing business with you," he said.
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."
There are syndicate members who, despite the Travers, aren't averse to the way the roll came up. The private breeders, who bought their shares to breed and raise their own horses for racing, have felt the blow of the Travers less than the commercial breeders, who will be marketing Cielo's yearlings. "I'm happy to be in the syndicate," Firestone says. "Cielo was a very good racehorse—lots of class and a very good-looking horse."
"I don't think the Travers was significant," says Dr. Weber. "We didn't buy him as a racehorse. We bought him as a stallion. The Travers isn't going to change the coding on his chromosomes. Sure, the Travers was disappointing. But you don't stay in this business if you wear short pants. It's been a good business for us. We'll work out on the average."
After the Travers, Hancock felt angry and bitter toward de Kwiatkowski. "The deal forced Seth to ask too much of his friends," says Farish. But de Kwiatkowski has since spent more than $6 million for five broodmares, including a world-record $3.8 million for Royal Honoree, in foal to Northern Dancer. He has installed them at Claiborne and plans to send them to Cielo—"I wouldn't spend millions of dollars for mares if I didn't have faith in the horse," he says—and he did take back the two shares that Hancock could not sell at Saratoga. "It's all forgotten," Hancock says. "He gets a lot of credit for buying those mares and taking back the two shares. He didn't have to do that."
Syndicate members will undoubtedly be sending top mares to Cielo this spring, protecting their investment by giving him the best chance to make it as a stallion. No horse rose more quickly, or more dramatically, than Conquistador Cielo did in those five days that embraced the Met and Belmont Stakes. On the basis of those two races, he remains a tepid choice to become Horse of the Year. And if he's a modern St. Simon, he'll have every chance to show it at stud.
"He's going to have a great book of mares," Hancock says. "The true test is going to be five years from now when we can see if he's making it as a sire. The mares he's bred to aren't going to know he got beat in the Travers."
At Claiborne, Hancock pets Cielo, whose tender ankle gave him "the worst moment" of his life.
"I blew it," says Stephens of Cielo's loss in the Travers, which cut the colt's value by about 15%.
In dealing with Hancock, de Kwiatkowski kept raising the ante.
Even before Cielo arrived at Saratoga, diverse methods were tried to keep him—and his ankles—cool.
Many horsemen thought it unwise to run Cielo in the Belmont; he responded with a 14-length win.
Cielo (second from right) won the Jim Dandy, too, but in doing so sprained ankle ligaments.
In the Travers, Cielo faded to finish third, behind Aloma's Ruler and the winner, Runaway Groom.
To Fritz, here demonstrating on another horse the procedure used on Cielo, the tapping presented no risk. The gamble was in deciding to start Cielo in the Travers.
To relieve Cielo's ankle, Fritz inserted his needle into the digital sheath, withdrew fluid, then injected steroids plus an antibiotic.
Location of Proximal Sesamoid Bone
Site of Injection
Middle Sesamoidean Ligament
Digital Synovial Sheath
Superficial Sesamoidean Ligament
Digital Flexor Tendon
St. Simon, with whom Cielo is compared, won all nine starts as a 2- and 3-year-old.