11/17/2016 3:20PM

Hovdey: Stute, Puype find tonic at old Del Mar


There is no indication that reverse psychology works on a racehorse, at least not like the way it does on, say, a 5-year-old, or a recalcitrant boyfriend.

You can stroll past the stall of an unruly colt waving the surgical implements of castration, and he won’t bat an eye. “Don’t eat … see if I care” is rarely deployed as a training tool.

After four straight losses as the heavy choice, the 3-year-old Tizbud filly Chao Chum had Gary Stute wishing he had more hair to pull. Her maiden win last July was visually impressive, and her subsequent starts were never embarrassing, with three seconds and a third. But she was burning money like mad. Stute was beginning to wonder if he was seeing things.

“I even tried training her two different ways for two of her allowance losses,” Stute said. “I tried old school and then went new school, but it didn’t make any difference. I said to hell with it. I’d been running her in those allowance races and Cal-bred races thinking she couldn’t lose, so I put her in a race I didn’t think she could win.”

The race was last Sunday’s $100,000 Betty Grable Stakes at Del Mar, a seven-furlong main-track event that looked like a slam dunk for Nick Alexander’s Enola Gray. The daughter of Grazen won a similar race at Del Mar last summer by a pole, with a speed figure that caught everyone’s eye. Accordingly, Enola Gray was held at a dime on the dollar for the Betty Grable.

Then horse racing happened, and Chao Chum beat Enola Gray by a conclusive length and a quarter after dogging the choice from the start. Kent Desormeaux rode the winner, after Tiago Pereira had been aboard all six of her previous races.

“The other kid rode her fine,” Stute said. “But there’s just something about Desormeaux. He’s got those magic hands, and some horses really respond to that magic. Hopefully, she’s one of them.”

There’s something magic about Del Mar, as well, no matter what time of year it opens for business, although the brief fall meet, now in its third season, is still a promotional work in progress, thrashing around between holiday themes and the residue of horse racing’s show biz glow.

Only at Del Mar would there be a race named for Betty Grable, the leggy hoofer, WWII pinup, and wife of bandleader Harry James, whose colt Big Noise won the 1951 Del Mar Futurity under Hall of Famer Ralph Neves. The glamour couple were denizens of the summer seaside meet, when Harry would give his all-star band time off and Betty would dope out the races every day in the clubhouse.

Of course, there’s nostalgia, then there’s ancient history. Del Mar’s naming committee came closer to this century with the $75,000 Let It Ride Stakes on opening Saturday, conjuring memories of the classic racetrack flick from 1989 that has supplied wiseguys with all the material they’ll ever need. The Exchange Rate colt Defiantly won the mile on the grass for owner Mick Ruis and trainer Craig Dollase, with Gary Stevens doing the driving.

If nothing else, the fall Del Mar meet gives players on both sides of the rail a chance for a deep breath. With the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita this year, the California season had the feel of coming to a loud and dramatic end, especially after the epic Classic between Arrogate and California Chrome left everyone limp and pleading, “No mas.”

These last two months, split between Del Mar and Los Alamitos, put decent enough purses on the table for those who step up. Trainer Mike Puype, who deserves another headline horse now that two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Mizdirection is a memory, came on strong with three winners from six starters opening weekend. It was no surprise to see Flavien Prat fast from the gate with four wins, but the pleasant surprise was an opening-day double from Santiago Gonzalez, who was third in the Del Mar summer standings but went cold at Santa Anita in the fall.

No one deserved to celebrate more than Stute. The cigar-chomping son and former assistant of perennial Hall of Fame candidate Mel Stute has been through some dry years. By his calculations, the victory of Chao Chum was the trainer’s first stakes win since the 2010 San Fernando with Papa Clem.

“I haven’t had many opportunities,” Stute said with a self-effacing burst of his infectious laugh. “Between six and eight horses has been my barn the last couple of years. That’s gets old, and it can get you pretty sour. When I became a trainer I didn’t think about the part where you had to beg owners for horses.”

Chao Chum was bred and is owned by a partnership of Thai businessmen who’ve had horses with Mel Stute in the past. Her Betty Grable victory has Gary Stute thinking he might have a player in the division, with a race like the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes in late December coming into the picture.

“Going into the race the other day, the La Brea never crossed my mind,” Stute said. “She’d let me down so much, and I never planned on her running that good. I was getting kind of depressed. Now, I’ve got to at least nominate her. She might be as good as I thought she was after all.”