When M.C. Hammer showed up on the Belmont Park W backstretch Friday morning, he lent a little excitement to an otherwise mundane pre-Belmont week.
The 27-year-old rap star and his entourage of about 10 mad their way from barn to barn, turning heads and drawing whoops. Hammer had his picture taken with Lite Light, Strike the Gold and even Meadow Star, but when asked to pose with Media Plan, he refused because the colt had not yet won for Oaktown Stable, the outfit owned by his family. "Got to win first," he said.
Hammer, born Stanley Burrell, is the son of Lewis Burrell Sr. whose family has made such a splashy entrance into racing that last week their story drew equal billing with yesterday's Belmont Stakes. A huge spread in The National and other publications trumpeted the significance of their success; they are the first black family to be so heavily vested in the sport in the United States.
All the publicity might not be theirs if not for Lite Light, who faces Meadow Star in the Mother Goose Stakes today. Oaktown bought the filly for $1.2 million earlier this year, and she since has gone 3-for-3 and become significantly more valuable.
Lite Light won the Kentucky Oaks by 10 lengths in her most recent start. In the 1 1/8 -mile Mother Goose, she will run against last year's 2-year-old filly champion, Meadow Star, whose only defeat in 11 career starts came against males. It should be a tremendous race.
"I think she'll beat Meadow Star," said Lite Light's rider, Corey Nakatani. "There's no doubt in my mind. She's doing great right now."
The Woodman was back for this year's Belmont. No, not the sir Hansel.
Woody Stephens is back at Belmont Park with a small stable after several years of serious health problems, including a heart ailment. The 77-year-old trainer said he is "still not 100 percent, but I'm not 35 anymore.
"It's the emphysema that really gets me. I still sleep with an oxygen tank next to the bed most nights."
But he still has that grin and the jabber and the touch of braggadocio that endeared him to thousands of racing fans during the 1980s. His string of five consecutive Belmont victories (1982-86) grows more amazing as the years pass.
"Only one guy won as many as two Belmonts since I've been around, and that was Lucien Laurin," Stephens said Friday. "Except me."
A writer once said that Stephens enjoyed talking about the streak so much that if you asked him what he had for breakfast, the answer would be something like, "Toast and coffee and did I ever tell you I won the Belmont five straight times?"
Of Stephens' 15 horses, most are owned by his wife, Lucille. The streak of five came for four different owners, but if he is to win another one, Stephens said, "The Belmont cup will have my wife's name on it."
Jockey Donnie Miller Jr., who left Maryland earlier this year to ride regularly on the Northern California circuit, notched his 2,500th career victory May 23 at Golden Gate Fields. Miller, a 10-year veteran, rode Uno Gummo to a half-length victory in a $16,000 claiming race for trainer Bryan Webb.
"Things are going great," Miller said Friday. "I'm sixth in the standings and riding eight, nine, 10 a day. I sure can't complain."
Long races such as the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes have become unfashionable in recent years. That's mostly because it's easier to train horses for shorter distances and because races such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont perennially drew short fields.
In 1976, the Gold Cup was reduced from two miles to 1 1/2 miles. Last year, it was shortened to 1 1/4 miles, mainly because it is run before the 1 1/4 -mile Breeders' Cup Classic, and a 1 1/2 -mile race is not a good prep for a 1 1/4 -mile race.
Other than long turf races in New York and California, the Belmont is the only race of significance as long as 1 1/2 miles still remaining in the United States.
"It's sad," said Nick Zito, trainer of Strike the Gold. "If they ever, ever, ever attempt -- ever -- to not make the Belmont a mile and a half, they might as well close this place up. The distance is part of the beauty of this race."
Ben Stubbs, a groom at Laurel Race Course, is featured in a terrific story by Bill Nack in the June 10 edition of Sports Illustrated. The article begins with an anecdote about the Congressional Handicap at Laurel last winter.