HIALEAH, Fla. — Trainer Woody Stephens, seldom one to miss a good party, was unexpectedly absent Wednesday morning when the post-position draw for Saturday's $450,000 Flamingo Stakes was held in one of Hialeah's dining rooms.
"Maybe Woody couldn't get a ride," said a guy with an odd sense of humor.
At dawn Wednesday, Stephens was ready to drive to the track, as usual, only to find that someone had stolen his 1983 Mercedes-Benz, which had been parked in front of his house.
This is the second time this particular car has been stolen, and Stephens can only hope that it doesn't turn out to be the kind of omen the 1984 theft seemed to be.
In 1984, a few days after the car's disappearance, Stephens saddled Devil's Bag, the odds-on favorite, and saw him run off the board in the Flamingo.
Then Devil's Bag, who had been the champion 2-year-old colt in 1983, was scratched from the Kentucky Derby because of a leg injury and quickly retired.
The 73-year-old Stephens, winner of five straight Belmont Stakes but without a Flamingo victory since 1963, has another Hialeah contender this year in Conquistarose, who was listed as the 3-1 second choice, behind the 5-2 Cryptoclearance, after a capacity field of 14 was entered Wednesday.
Had any more trainers been interested in running, Hialeah would have had to invoke the earnings rule, with the 14 richest horses getting preference.
The Flamingo is the first of seven major races for 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby. The other important preps are Santa Anita's San Felipe Handicap and Santa Anita Derby, Gulfstream Park's Florida Derby, Aqueduct's Wood Memorial, Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby, and Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, run nine days before the Kentucky Derby on May 2.
Here is the Flamingo field, starting with the inside post:
Momsfurrari, Conquistarose, Schism, Proudest Duke, Rupperto, Bourgeois, Avies Copy, Cryptoclearance, Talinum, Leo Castelli, The Real Truth, Manhattan's Woody, No More Flowers and Fly Fly Fly.
Stephens is pleased with the No. 2 post for Conquistarose and likes his chances. The colt was on a three-race winning streak before he finished second, behind Fly Fly Fly, in a grass race here Feb. 15.
One explanation for the Fly Fly Fly race is that the winner loped to an easy early lead and Conquistarose, far back at the start, had a wide trip with too much ground to make up.
Not as easy to explain is the popularity of Stephens' car among thieves.
"Can't understand it," the trainer said Wednesday. "I live in the best neighborhood. My place is on one side of the golf course and Don Shula (coach of the Miami Dolphins) is on the other side. The car's only got 24,000 miles on it."
Far less used is Conquistarose. The colt will add 1 1/8 miles to his total Saturday, presumably using a better route against Fly Fly Fly than he did the last time.
The $35,000 Key West Stakes, part of Saturday's Flamingo-day program at Hialeah, has drawn Gulch and Bet Twice, two of last year's best 2-year-olds, who will be making their 1987 debuts.
Neither colt has run since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita last November, when Bet Twice ran fourth and Gulch finished fifth.
Manila, winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf race and the champion male grass runner last year, is about three weeks away from his 1987 debut, according to trainer LeRoy Jolley, who also has Gulch and Leo Castelli in his barn at Hialeah.
"Because of the way grass races are scheduled in the East, Manila's main campaign will be from late August through November," Jolley said. "In the meantime, I've got a real desire to run him on the dirt."
While Manila was idle, he put on a tremendous amount of weight, maybe a couple of hundred pounds.
"He's not as bad now as he was," Jolley said. "But he still looks like one of those pro football players who comes to training camp and doesn't want to get on the scale. I'm hoping the heat that we usually get in Florida will take the rest of the excess poundage off him."
Seattle Dancer, the horse who brought a record $13.1 million at a Keeneland yearling auction in 1985, is training well in England and may make his first start in April, according to Danny Schwartz, the Palm Springs man who was among the buyers.
"At least we've gotten him this far," Schwartz said of the Nijinsky II-My Charmer colt, whose dam also produced Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew. Nijinsky II is a son of Native Dancer.
Schwartz and his partners are doing better with Seattle Dancer than the handlers of Snaffi Dancer fared with the colt who set the previous record when he was bought for $10.2 million at Keeneland in 1983. Snaffi Dancer never raced.
"He looked great and galloped well," said his trainer, John Dunlop. "But he wasn't very good when it came to running."