09/23/2003 11:00PM

Happy to play a game he loves


POMONA, Calif. - Finally, after all these years, Melvin Frederick Stute, age 76 and by his own admission not getting any younger, will be entering a horse racing hall of fame.

This is fitting, since Stute stands tall as a genuine West Coast icon. His career is a model of consistency over the long haul. He was training stakes winners in the early 1960's and he is still training stakes winners today, with champions and Breeders' Cup winners sprinkled famously among them.

Stute has rubbed shoulders with both the rich and the famous, comfortable with tycoons and cowboys, senators and centerfolds. High-priced bloodstock occasionally has come his way, but his best horses have have been such blue-collar stars as Snow Chief, Telly's Pop, Double Discount, Score Quick, Very Subtle, and more recently, the 2-year-old gelding Perfect Moon, winner of this summer's Hollywood Juvenile Championship and Best Pal Stakes. Any hall of fame would be better for his presence.

It must be noted, however, that the hall to which Stute has been named is not the one located on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. There is no Reading Room across the street, no Wishing Well nearby, nor will there be a phalanx of racing's bigwigs attending the ceremony, hoping to bask in Stute's common man glow.

The address for this particular Hall of Fame is Fairplex Park, home of the Los Angeles County Fair, which operates each September in the eastern L.A. County town of Pomona. Besides horse racing, Fairplex Park attractions include sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, and a carnival midway bursting with thrill rides, with corn dogs and churros at every turn. Pomona has been called a lot of things, but "spa" has never been one of them.

On Saturday, in a winner's circle salute, Stute will be the first person enshrined in the newly created Fairplex Hall of Fame, which only makes sense. After all, he is the all-time Fairplex Park training champ, with 176 victories and counting. Stute is also an Indiana farm boy at heart and has always fit right in at the fair, which is located at the heart of Southern California's urbanized agricultural region. The city of Pomona itself was named for the Roman goddess of fruit. Or was it margaritas?

Matters not to Mel. He's just delighted with the honor, and happy to be playing the game he loves. A good day for Stute includes training, breakfast with his gang, a little time at home with his wife, Annabelle, and then an afternoon of sport - either saddling winners or betting on them. Preferably both.

On an afternoon at Del Mar, not long ago, Stute was spotted leaving a clubhouse self-service terminal, fussing with something inside the V-neck of his cashmere sweater.

"I'm having trouble getting my tickets tucked away," Stute said. "It's the dang suspenders strapped over the pocket. I guess that's what happens when you start getting old - things like suspenders getting in the way."

Although Stute has cut back the size of his stable in recent years - a concession to quadruple bypass surgery in December 2000 - he has continued to be a steady parimutuel customer. No one enjoys it more.

"I don't put a lot through the windows," Stute conceded, "but I do it very often."

Stute may have hit the best lick of his gambling career this summer, though, when he sold Perfect Moon on the eve of the Del Mar Futurity - a race in which he finished third - for a cool $600,000. Stute's original investment was $4,700, Perfect Moon's purchase price as a yearling.

"I could have held on to him for the Futurity," Stute said, "maybe taken a chance and asked for more if he'd won. But I figured a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Especially in my position in life. I don't want to be one of these guys who outlives all his money, and this was a lot of money. So I went ahead and paid everything off that I owe. No house payments, nothing. Except for Uncle Sam."

Like all good gamblers, Stute was possessed of some inside information when he brought home Perfect Moon. He trained his sire, Malibu Moon, and was anxiously awaiting his first crop to reach the market.

"He was a good horse," Stute said of Malibu Moon, a son of A.P. Indy who won one of his two starts. "Probably as good a horse as I ever had. He fractured a little bone in his knee, we operated, and everything was a success. Except that Wayne" - owner B. Wayne Hughes - "was told that most horses don't come back as good as they were. So he went ahead and sold half of the horse to Country Life Farm in Maryland."

The success of the Malibu Moons has landed the young stallion in Kentucky for the 2004 breeding season, and priced the bargain-hunting Stute right out of the market. Or so he says.

"They're selling a bunch of Malibu Moons at the same sale in Maryland next Monday and Tuesday, and I'll be there," Stute said. "I don't think I'll be able to get any of them for $4,700, though."

Don't bet against him.