Updated on 06/08/2013 10:23AM

Belmont Stakes: Golden Soul trainer Stewart back on big stage

Barbara D. Livingston
Dallas Stewart will be represented in the Belmont by Golden Soul, his first Triple Crown horse since 2008.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Dallas Stewart is back at the table. After a few years between proverbial drinks, Stewart is in the Triple Crown discussion again, this time with a colt he believes is coming into the Belmont Stakes in terrific shape.

Golden Soul, runner-up in the May 4 Kentucky Derby, was purposely held out of the Preakness by Stewart to await the 145th Belmont on Saturday.

“I don’t see anything I don’t like about this,” Stewart said early this week, before leaving his Churchill Downs base for Belmont Park in New York.

Golden Soul, bred and owned by Charles Fipke, was the surprise of the Derby, overcoming his 34-1 odds to finish ahead of every horse except Orb. His performance validated the confidence Stewart had quietly exuded in the days leading up to the race.

“I’ve just always known he’s a real nice horse, although he hadn’t really been able to show it before the Derby,” Stewart said.

Golden Soul is the fourth horse Stewart has had in the Triple Crown series but his first since 2008, when Macho Again ran second in the Preakness and fifth in the Belmont. Before that were Kimberlite Pipe in 1999 and Dollar Bill in 2001.

As a former longtime assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas – who will run Oxbow and Will Take Charge against Golden Soul on Saturday – Stewart opened his public stable with high expectations in 1997. His career path has been somewhat up-and-down – and certainly not as brilliant as that of another Lukas protege, Todd Pletcher, who is expected to have as many as five Belmont starters – but Stewart always seems very comfortable in his own skin.

“I don’t have any complaints about my career,” he said. “I’ve made out real well financially because I’ve owned a piece of some horses that have been home runs. I don’t owe anybody a quarter, and nobody owes me a quarter. I feel extremely fortunate, actually.”

Among the horses in which Stewart was a minority partner were Lemons Forever, the 2006 Kentucky Oaks winner who earned $648,940, and Nasty Storm, who earned $754,157. They were eventually sold at auction for $2.5 million and $1.075 million.

Stewart, 53, was born in Mississippi, grew up in New Orleans, and migrated to the racetrack as a young adult. He began working for Lukas in 1985 and was integral to the multi-based operation at a time when superstars such as Lady’s Secret, Winning Colors, Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Timber Country, and Serena’s Song were active.

Into Belmont week, Stewart had won 684 races for stable earnings of nearly $34.5 million, with his most productive seasons being early ones. He won 67 races in 1999 and a career-high 69 the following year, and his top earnings year was 2001 with $3.8 million. In contrast, his aggregate 2011-13 totals are 44 races won and $2.1 million.

Besides the 2006 Oaks, his greatest victories include the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Unbridled Elaine, the 1999 Louisiana Derby with Kimberlite Pipe, the 2009 Stephen Foster with Macho Again, and three straight runnings of the Louisville Handicap (2004-06) with an old favorite, Silverfoot.

But racing trophies and statistics alone do not define Stewart, whose character traits include a quick wit, an even quicker grin, and a certain laid-back empathy for those who “laissez les bon temps rouler,” or let the good times roll. He said the bonds he has formed on the racetrack, along with the business relationships he has enjoyed with numerous clients, are invaluable to him.

“That’s the big thing, the really nice people I’ve had the pleasure of training horses for,” he said. “I mean, really good people.”

Moreover, he and his wife, Yvette, have two sons, Wesley, 22, and Cole, 13, and their family life is a huge priority. Over the last 10-plus years, the Stewarts have become ingrained in their Lake Forest neighborhood just east of Louisville, with a bounty of friends and acquaintances.

“Yvette and the boys are coming to the Belmont, sure they are,” Stewart said.

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

Golden Soul, a solidly built chestnut with a thin blaze, will be trying to pull off a rare feat as a Derby runner-up. In the last 50-plus years, Empire Maker in 2003 is the only horse to run second in the Derby and then win the Belmont after skipping the Preakness. Before Empire Maker, it was Gallant Man in 1957, although he raced in the interim, as was the custom in those days.

Stewart only shrugs at such trivia. Before the Churchill mud had even been washed off Golden Soul following the Derby, he was already thinking Belmont, sensing the monumental effort it took to make the Derby and what it was going to take to recover. The Preakness was out of the question.

For a while, that recovery was not completely assured.

“He wasn’t eating everything up, which isn’t like him,” Stewart said. “That’s the first thing we do every morning is check the feed tub. That’s what we’ve been taught and that’s what we lean on. He was just kind of lingering, leaving a handful or two in the tub.

“For three-plus weeks, his energy was OK, and I just continued with the long gallops to maintain his fitness, knowing how important that is for a mile-and-a-half race,” he said. “Then he started eating up again, and he just came right back to himself. By that fourth week, he was back, and he was doing everything perfect in his training. Then in that work (six furlongs on May 30 at Churchill), he really impressed me.

“He’s sound, he’s fit, he’s happy,” he said. “I’m happy. Knock on wood, we’re in there with a real shot, I do believe. He showed in the Derby what a good horse he is. Now we’ve got to go up there and have him run another big one, hope for a little racing luck, and maybe knock one of these big ones out.”

For all the rewards and enjoyment he has derived from racing, Stewart still feels there is plenty to do. His return to the Triple Crown scene after a five-year absence has rejuvenated his enduring love of the game.

“If it’s December, and you haven’t had a 2-year-old look promising, it’s not a great feeling, I can guarantee you that,” he said. “These are the races you think of all the time. To have a horse good enough and participate . . . it’s what you’re looking for. I know that’s what I’m looking for.”

Stewart in the Triple Crown

Year  Horse Race, Finish
2013 Golden Soul Kentucky Derby, 2nd
2008 Macho Again Belmont, 5th
2008 Macho Again Preakness, 2nd
2001 Dollar Bill Belmont, 4th
2001 Dollar Bill Preakness, 4th
2001 Dollar Bill Kentucky Derby, 15th
1999 Kimberlite Pipe Preakness, 8th
1999 Kimberlite Pipe Kentucky Derby, 6th

Bucking history

Since 1980, 10 horses have finished second in the Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness, and run in the Belmont Stakes. Only one has won.

Year Horse Finish Odds
2011 Nehro 4th 9-2
2010 Ice Box 9th 9-5*
2006 Bluegrass Cat 2nd 9-2
2003 Empire Maker 1st 2-1
2001 Invisible Ink 5th 10-1
2000 Aptitude 2nd 8-5*
1994 Strodes Creek 3rd 6-5*
1985 Stephan’s Odyssey 2nd 5-2*
1984 Coax Me Chad 5th 24-1
1980 Rumbo 5th 9-5

*Belmont Stakes favorite