Updated on 09/16/2011 8:53AM

Conquistador Cielo dies at 23

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Conquistador Cielo, whose dramatic Metropolitan Mile-Belmont Stakes double in just five days propelled him to the 1982 Horse of the Year title and a record syndication price, died Tuesday morning at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. The Mr. Prospector horse foundered in his left foreleg, and Claiborne officials decided to euthanize him. Conquistador Cielo was 23.

Conquistador Cielo injured his right knee while recovering from colic surgery, then recently developed founder in the opposite foreleg. Founder is a stress-related hoof problem that commonly occurs when horses shift weight for long periods from an injured leg to a healthy one. Adding to the horse's difficulties was that he had an arthritic hip, which may have contributed to his placing extra weight on his left foreleg.

"He foundered, and the founder became acute on Monday," Claiborne manager Gus Koch said Tuesday. "At that point we knew that we would not be able to control his pain, and we did the best thing for the horse. We were fortunate to have Conquistador Cielo for his entire career and are proud of his accomplishments."

Conquistador Cielo had a brief but spectacular racing career that saw him develop from fiery sprinter to 14-length Belmont Stakes winner in less than a year. Trained by the Hall of Famer Woody Stephens for Henryk de Kwiatkowski, Conquistador Cielo is best known for pulling off one of the sport's most ambitious feats by winning the Metropolitan Handicap by 7 1/4 lengths, followed five days later by a front-running 14-length victory in the Belmont Stakes over a sloppy track. Winning two of the game's most prestigious races in less than a week brought Conquistador Cielo instant fame and launched him to the top of his division.

As if that weren't dazzling enough, Conquistador Cielo set a Belmont record of 1:33 for a mile in the Metropolitan Handicap, which was just .80 of a second off Dr. Fager's world record.

Conquistador Cielo was bred in Florida by Lewis E. Iandoli, who sold him through Lee Eaton's consignment at the 1980 Saratoga yearling auction. De Kwiatkowski bought him there for $150,000 and sent him to Stephens, who liked the colt's potential immediately.

So did jockey Eddie Maple, who rode Conquistador Cielo for most of the colt's career.

"I was at Hialeah when he came in as a 2-year-old," Maple recalled. "He came down from Aiken [South Carolina]. He was a knock-out to look at, and word had come down from there that he could be something pretty special. He looked pretty, and he acted the part. He was smart and a delight to be around, but he was a colt, and he could play around a little. He just kept improving."

After finishing third in his debut, Conquistador Cielo came back and scored his first win, by eight lengths, in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Belmont. He took the Grade 2 Saratoga Special next. He finished fourth in the Grade 2 Sanford and came out of the race with a stress fracture in his left foreleg.

"His shin bothered him at 2, but he could really run," Maple said.

Conquistador Cielo underwent surgery to drill tiny holes in his cannon bone, a way of increasing blood flow and promoting bone growth, and the fracture knitted enough to put him back on track for his 3-year-old debut at Hialeah in February 1982. But Conquistador Cielo barely got started before his injury surfaced again, and this time Stephens had to shelve the colt from February to May. He also turned to a $2,000 electrotherapy machine he thought might help the colt's sore shin. Whether by electronics or traditional TLC, Conquistador Cielo came back strong enough to cut a swath through the 3-year-old division. He won an allowance at Pimlico by three, then tackled older horses in an another allowance and won by 11 before rolling over the Metropolitan and Belmont fields. He didn't lose again until the Travers Stakes, winning the Grade 2 Dwyer and Grade 3 Jim Dandy along the way.

"He was push-button at 3," said Maple, who was aboard for all of Conquistador Cielo's races that year except the Belmont Stakes, which he missed after breaking six ribs and bruising a kidney in a spill the day before. "As he matured, he carried that speed, and he turned into something amazing. But you had to keep him away from the crowd and work to keep him settled in the post parades. When you had his shins under control, he could do anything in a workout. He always had it, that talent."

In the Travers, Conquistador Cielo ran for the first time in front bandages to protect those suspect shins. He was rank early and tired late, finishing third behind longshot Runaway Groom and Aloma's Ruler. It was his last race.

But Conquistador Cielo was not out of the headlines. His retirement activated a syndication agreement in which Claiborne and de Kwiatkowski offered shares in the horse for a then record $910,000. Based on a 40-share syndication, that put Conquistador Cielo's total valuation at $36.4 million.

Conquistador Cielo proved to be a useful sire, though he has yet to sire a horse that matched his own meteoric record.

Perhaps the best of his progeny was Marquetry, a multiple Grade 1 winner and $2 million earner. Among Conquistador Cielo's other outstanding runners are Grade 1 winners Wagon Limit, Norquestor, and Conquistarose; millionaire Forty Niner Days; and graded stakes winners Alannan, Mi Cielo, Lexicon, Unrullah Bull, and Truluck.

At the time of his death, Conquistador Cielo had 17 crops to race for total progeny earnings of $52,649,774.

Conquistador Cielo, a son of the Grade 3-placed Bold Commander mare K D Princess, was buried Tuesday at Claiborne's Marchmont Cemetery. His grave is next to Unbridled's.