01/06/2006 12:00AM

Danzig got big boost from Stephens

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Bob Coglianese/NYRA
Danzig never won a stakes race but became a great stallion, thanks in large part to trainer Woody Stephens's powers of persuasion.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The story of Danzig is more than the riveting tale of an unbeaten colt who doesn't win a stakes but nonetheless ascends into the pantheon of the great sires in history.

It is also the story of a great trainer, a great farm, of good owners and breeders who believed in a young man and backed his decisions, and the growth of a great sport into a business of international proportions. But the story started with a yearling sale at the Saratoga in 1977.

There, this bay son of the great sire Northern Dancer had such presence and balance that he caught the attention of the great trainer Woody Stephens.

Already a trainer of champions and classic winners, Stephens had not yet come into the vast public recognition that resulted from

the 3-year-olds he trained winning five consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes from 1982 through 1986. But he was very well known within racing as one of the sport's best trainers and was regarded by breeders as one of the best judges about whether to retain a horse for breeding.

As a result, Stephens trained for many of the leading farms of the time, including the Hancock family's Claiborne Farm, and no stallion operation had greater clout at the time than Claiborne.

So, midway through 1980, when Stephens knew that Danzig was finished as a racehorse, he began plotting ways to find him a home at stud.

And why not start at the top?

Seth Hancock noted that it was Stephens's urging that sent Danzig to Claiborne. The farm already had a top-class son of Northern Dancer in English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky and could have had 10 other sons if it wanted.

Also, Hancock was reluctant to add a stallion of questionable soundness to the farm roster, especially one who was not a stakes winner. In fact, Hancock asked the trainer whether the colt didn't have a bad knee that had given him problems and led to his retirement. Stephens replied glibly, "Well now, Seth, he's only got one."

Stephens brought Hancock and Danzig's owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, together over lunch in the clubhouse at Belmont Park and ironed out a deal that was workable for both. As a result, Danzig went to stud for a syndicated share price of $80,000 and an initial stud fee of $20,000.

The flamboyant de Kwiatkowski supported the young stallion, and Hancock rounded up other breeders who were willing to take a chance on Danzig's undoubted talent and his sire's enlarging reputation as a sire of sires.

Among those lucky breeders who backed their faith in Hancock and Danzig was businessman Carl Rosen, who had won the filly triple crown in New York with Chris Evert. He sent his champion's first foal, the stakes-winning Secretariat mare Six Crowns, to Danzig, and the result was 2-year-old champion Chief's Crown.

Danzig never looked back from that auspicious start, which also included the Grade 1 winners Contredance and Stephan's Odyssey, who was bred by de Kwiatkowski.

In all, Danzig had nine stakes winners from his first crop and 11 from his second. Not only were the young sire's first racers notable for quantity but also for quality, and although the number of stakes winners decreased for the young stallion's third and fourth crops, he bounced back emphatically with 17 stakes winners in the fifth.

And these large numbers of stakes winners were not bred from books of 150 or 200 mares. There were 32 foals in Danzig's first crop, and only 58 in the crop that resulted in 17 stakes winners.

That fifth crop also yielded the highest proportion of stakes winners to foals from all crops by Danzig at an amazing 29 percent.

After such success with his early American-based runners in the mid-1980's, major international buyers began to target Danzig as one of their primary sires of choice.

In addition to driving up the prices of his yearlings to extraordinary levels, many of the best prospects, both in conformation and pedigree, went to Europe.

One of those sent overseas by his breeder, Juddmonte Farm, was Danehill, who was highweighted as a sprinter in 1989 and became the most successful of Danzig's many good sons at stud. Absolutely the best stallion ever to stand in Australia, Danehill also became increasingly successful in America and Europe. His daughter Intercontinental won the 2005 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and is one of the finalists for the Eclipse Award in her division.

All this and much more has come from the dark bay son of Northern Dancer who stood at Claiborne. What wonders would we have missed if Mr. Woody hadn't been at his entrepreneurial best for that lunch more than 25 years ago?