09/04/2007 11:00PM

Nothing rattles Pomona's king


POMONA, Calif. - The king of Fairplex Park still had business to tend to at Del Mar before he resumed his benign rule over all things Pomona. It was Labor Day, and the 2-year-old colt Wise Mandate was going postward in the I'm Smokin Stakes at odds of 26-1, an inspiring price that had Mel Stute worshipping at the altar of an automated teller in the Del Mar clubhouse mezzanine.

Draped in his laid-back summer duds, including a lightly patterned Hawaiian shirt and khaki suspenders, Stute manipulated the tote screen like Bernstein conducting a symphony. Eventually, he was satisfied with his investment, a tossed parimutuel salad that included the late pick four and anything with the term "fecta" involved.

A few moments later, Stute had settled into his box seat on the finish line to await the verdict, encouraged at least by the fact that, so far, it had been an unpredictable day, with winners coming down at odds of 16-1, 19-1, and 36-1.

"He'll guarantee a carryover if he wins," said Mel's son, trainer Gary Stute, from the box across the aisle. "If he wins, I won't give a damn, carryover or not," Mel replied.

Then the gates opened, the 2-year-olds scrambled around, and after pressing the pace Wise Mandate was beaten three lengths and finished sixth. Stute's reaction was about the same as it was after he had won the Preakness with Snow Chief, or the Breeders' Cup Sprint with Very Subtle, or the Del Mar Futurity with Telly's Pop. In stride. Next case.

"Oh well, on to Pomona," Stute said. "He'll love that bullring."

As a defense mechanism to disappointments experienced at Del Mar, the L.A. County Fair meeting at Fairplex Park in Pomona always has been soothing to Stute's soul. Even when Del Mar is good, Fairplex has the edge in Stute's world because, after all, he is the king, with 186 lifetime wins and 43 of those in stakes, tops in both categories.

Unless something phenomenal was to happen on Wednesday, when Stute had three runners on Del Mar's closing-day card, the king of Pomona will be limping into the Fairplex Park meet this Friday, battered and bruised from a tough summer at the beach. Through last Monday, Stute had run 22 horses at Del Mar without winning. He also had run those 22 horses without finishing second, which is pretty much like adding insult to injury.

"Oops, here he comes right at me," Stute exclaimed as the head-on replay showed Wise Mandate leaving the gate straight as a string. "What a wonderful training job!"

It is a sublime recipe that Stute has concocted, over his 60 years as a trainer. Employing a horseplayer's dark humor to leaven the crippling anxieties of a trainer has helped Stute survive, well past common retirement age, in a profession that can be relentlessly unforgiving. Well into his 70s, he continued to be relevant with such recent stakes winners as Quick Little Miss, Smokin Mel, Buffythecenterfold, and Perfect Moon.

Stute celebrated his 80th birthday on Aug. 8. The following day, his brother and fellow trainer, Warren, died at the age of 85. For Mel, just about everything that has happened in the last month has been tinged with memories of his big brother, and little wonder. When you know someone for 80 years . . .

"At Warren's memorial service, our cousin from Indiana, Clancy Stute, was there," Stute said. "He and my brother were best friends, and I was kind of a tag-along. Always trying to get rid of me.

"There was a day him and Warren made me wait on the ground while they climbed to the top of this silo," Mel went on. "They spit chewing tobacco, and when it hit the bottom of the silo it would go 'boom!' All of a sudden both of them started to get sick. I had to go get my Dad to help bring them down."

Whether or not Mel turned out to be the sensible brother is beside the point. He did, after all, want to be spitting into that hollow silo right alongside the others. Without question, though, Stute has enjoyed the reputation of someone who shares his love of the racing game without reservation or pause, which is why it is fitting that Fairplex Park management will have Mel cutting the ribbon Friday for the grand opening of Stutes's Sports Bar, on the mezzanine of the Fairplex grandstand.

This is not to be confused with Mel Stute's Bar at Hollywood Park, or any of the other racetrack watering holes where Stute has dispensed wisdom and rehashed history since he saddled his first horse as a trainer, in 1947 at Portland Meadows.

These days, Stute concentrates on developing 2-year-olds, buying relatively low and selling them for good numbers if they get hot. The strategy has paid off well, and it keeps Stute's head in the game and his hands on that tote terminal.

"It's like I told my wife, Annabelle," Stute said. "And we've been married 56 years. I don't want to buy a yacht. I don't want to buy a beach house. I love to gamble. If I can't afford to lose two or three hundred dollars a day, then I've kind of screwed up my life."

This he definitely has not done.