05/06/2005 11:00PM

Derby stage brings out the kid in Stute

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As usual, Kentucky Derby morning on the Churchill Downs backside was a quiet scene. Horse traffic was light. Visitors had fled. What press there was had to scuffle and scrape for warm bodies, since most of the Derby trainers were already long gone.

Except for Warren Stute, media darling.

"Would you mind doing a brief radio interview, Mr. Stute?"

"Not at all," Warren replied. "In fact, I'm starting to like it. Kind of worried about that."

That's good, because there's no turning back. No matter how Stute's Illinois Derby winner, Greeley's Galaxy, managed to run in the 131st Kentucky Derby, the preceding week of unprecedented exposure gave the reality of Warren Stute a chance to catch up to the legend.

The file was substantial - six decades of glossy stakes winners and top flight clients - but sightings were rare. Outside of California, the Stute everybody knew was little brother Mel, trainer of such stars as Snow Chief, Very Subtle, and Brave Raj. Warren was the grizzly bear back home in the cave, with a reputation to match.

"Did you vote for my brother for the Hall of Fame?" Stute demanded when another microphone approached. "If you didn't, no interview. And you're on my list."

He was kidding, of course, but the message was clear. This was the same Warren Stute who once had a German shepherd guard dog named Baron ruled off for biting anyone who dared trespass under the shedrow at the wrong hour.

"The boys at the barn counted up 21 people Baron got," Stute said. "One of them, he ripped the back pocket off his jeans. They nailed it to the barn wall."

"Absolutely I was intimidated by him when I first came to California," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode Greeley's Galaxy. "He didn't really talk with you before a race. He gave you instructions - and you followed them."

The Derby media latched onto Stute as the "old guy" trying to win one last big one before disappearing into the sunset. Stute bit his tongue, narrowed his eyes, then delivered a series of sound bites that kept bringing microphones back for more, amazing the crowd with proof that someone at the unthinkable age of 83 could actually snap off a pretty good line.

"They keep reminding me about my age," Stute said, shaking his head. "And I'm trying to forget it."

They wouldn't, of course. So Stute went along with the show, repeatedly apologizing for the stroke he suffered two years ago that has slightly slurred his speech and put a hitch in his getalong.

Stute snagged one of the biggest laughs of the traditional dinner for Derby trainers earlier in the week, when, daunted 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."

At the Derby draw, Stute drew a round of affectionate applause by simply picking the nine post for Greeley's Galaxy and dryly explaining, "They told me number nine was lucky."

Longevity, in itself, is never a very good reason for reverence. Age has nothing to do with credibility.

In Stute's case, however, his personal saga provides first-hand witness to a half a century of significant racing history. For starters, it was Stute's first good horse, Great Circle, who gave Bill Shoemaker his first win in a six-figure purse. The year was 1951.

"I took him to New York after that," Stute said. "Ted Atkinson rode with him in the van from Belmont to work him at Jamaica for a race. Worked good. Didn't win."

Stute took to the road many times with horses owned by the late Clement Hirsch. They included Figonero, their rock-hard Argentinean; Magical Maiden, who finished third in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Distaff; and June Darling, California's best 2-year-old filly of 1970, who shipped to Garden State Park that fall for the rich Gardenia Stakes. That trip didn't go so well.

"We were on the track the morning of the race when another horse came right at her," said Stute. "I came off the filly. The pony spooked and dropped the pony boy." June Darling fractured her pelvis and never raced again.

Stute owes his 2005 Derby experience to Wayne Hughes, a patron for more than 30 years, who put up $200,000 to make Greeley's Galaxy eligible to the Derby as a late nominee. Even before the race was run, Hughes got more than his money's worth.

"Look at him," Hughes said, off to one side, as Stute cheerfully submitted to another camera lens. "He's really enjoying this."

Their friendship deepened when Hughes went through a tough eight years with his son, Parker, who was born with leukemia. Before he died, Parker became a regular visitor to the Stute stable.

"He was a very brave little boy," said Stute, who has two sons of his own. "The horses didn't scare him at all. He had to have those spinal fluid taps from time to time, and he'd just lay there quiet. A tear would run down his cheek, and he'd say to a friend, 'It's not so bad to cry, Yuri. I get to taste the salt.'"

Greeley's Galaxy could have provided Stute with the crowning moment of his career, but it was not meant to be. The colt finished 11th. After 60 years of training, it was hard to be discouraged.

"I've had a great time," Stute said. "Might have to do it again someday."