08/09/2007 12:00AM

Big heart behind Stute's tough talk

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Noble Threewitt once had an owner tell him to claim a horse that was trained by Warren Stute. Fat chance.

"He's about the last guy on earth I'd claim a horse off," Threewitt told his patron. "He's a very close friend of mine."

"What do you mean, close friend?" the owner wondered. "I've never even seen you talk to him!"

Threewitt shot the guy a cold eye.

"I don't see what that's got to do with it," he replied.

So there it is, the snapshot version of Warren Stute, a Thoroughbred trainer so respected by his peers that he could be your best friend without you even knowing it, mostly because he'd never bother to make a fuss, but at some point you had impressed him enough to put you in tight for life, which was a very good spot. And anyway, as far as Warren was concerned, actions speak louder and more honestly than any number of words.

Stute's death this week, at the age of 85, brought to an end a career dating back to 1940, when the son of Indiana dairy farmers Herman and Edith Stute went into business for himself at the old Caliente racetrack in Tijuana. Opinionated, brusque, and honest to a fault, Stute was the classic tough guy with both bark and bite. His owners deferred to his will with their horses or they hit the road, a style that has few practitioners today. But for a precious handful of patrons through the years - men like Clement Hirsch, Travis Kerr, and Wayne Hughes - Stute was just what they needed, a horse-training version of Lincoln's General Grant, willing to stick out his neck and make the tough decisions - stop or go - without a flinch.

Which is why no one was really surprised during the summer of 1969 when Warren unveiled a South American 3 1/2-year-old named Figonero, winning an allowance race, the American Handicap on grass, and the Hollywood Gold Cup at 1 1/4 miles in the space of 15 days. Nor were there gasps of wonder the following year when Stute beat the boys in the Del Mar Futurity with the filly June Darling, then won three stakes with her during the five weeks of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita Park.

American males born in 1921 are not necessarily supposed to make it all the way to 2007, so in that sense Warren Stute bucked the odds. But it wasn't as if he wrapped himself in cotton and tried to nurse himself to the wire. He was still galloping his own horses into his 80s. He'd broken enough bones to rattle when he walked. Once, when he was schooling an exercise rider on how to handle a problem horse, he was dumped into a coma that had friends and family shopping for black crepe. When he finally came around, he wisecracked, "See, that's how you do it."

Stute exposed himself to a whole new audience during the spring of 2005 when he took Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy to the Kentucky Derby. During the traditional dinner for Derby trainers, Warren snagged one of the biggest laughs when, undaunted by the glib deliveries of Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher, he shrugged, "I can't out-talk them, so I guess I'll just have to out-train them."

From his victory in 1951 with Great Circle in the $205,700 Santa Anita Maturity ("I lived for a year off what I made on that one," Warren said) to his 2002 triumph in the desert of Dubai in the $1 million Godolphin Mile, nothing was more important to him than personal loyalty. And no one could raise the protective mother bear in Stute quicker than his little brother, Mel, whose own training credits include Snow Chief, Brave Raj, Very Subtle, and Fleet Nasrullah.

"We just made a hell of a lot of money, Stevens," Warren said to his jockey, that guy Gary, after winning in Dubai. "And I made enough to take out a full-page ad in the Daily Racing Form and tell all these people just how many good horses Melvin Stute has trained."

If Warren Stute had any regrets at all, it was the fact that Mel never made it into racing's Hall of Fame.

"A friend of ours likes to say that Mel has made it in spite of me," Warren said once, poking fun at his fierce reputation. "I guess I did kind of let go of a few owners, and it built up from there. But I'm not near as bad as they make out."

No, not half as bad. And a romantic at heart, to which Trudy, his wife of 51 years, will gladly attest. Early each morning, for as long as she could remember, she found an affectionate note from her husband, scribbled in the pre-dawn darkness before he tiptoed out the door and headed for the track. During the recent months, when the accrued effects of small strokes began to take their toll, Stute's routine may have been interrupted, but his spirit rarely flagged.

A few days before his death, Trudy told friends that her husband tried to write her one more note, but darned if the pencil wouldn't cooperate. Trudy calls it "my last love note from Warren." The game will miss him almost as much.