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Q&A: Mel Stute
Popular veteran trainer of, among others, 1986 champion 3-year-old male Snow Chief is retiring. Most of the remaining horses he trains are being sold Monday at the January mixed sale at Barretts in Pomona, Calif.
Birthdate: Aug. 8, 1927, in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Family: Wife, Annabelle; daughters Jana and Gail; son, Gary
Got into racing because . . . "My brother Warren. He was already at the racetrack. When I graduated from high school, I thought I was going to be a basketball player. I tried out three days at Whittier College. I could see I had no chance. I went to work at a packing company. I had just gotten married. My brother said, 'How much do you make?' I said, '$340 a month.' He said I would make more at the racetrack, just leading horses over to the post for $10 a head. We had moved to California in 1934, when I was 7. My dad was a dairy farmer in Baldwin Park. Warren always cared about the horses. He didn't want to work as a dairy farmer. He talked me into coming to the track."
And now you're getting out: "I'm selling 10 at Barretts, all the ones that race in my wife's name. I've got four 2-year-olds I'm trying to get into their March sale. And I've got one left in partnership."
Why are you getting out? "I blame it on the tracks. They broke me. I owe the feed man. I owe here, I owe there. I don't know how many tibias and sesamoids I've had since the new tracks came in. In my career, the first 55 years, I put down four horses. Since they put in the new tracks, I put down 13."
But you'll still be here to bet, right? "I don't know if I'll bet every day. I might not have enough money. Some people want to retire and buy a house on the beach, or live on a yacht. I always said I just wanted to lose a couple of hundred dollars a day until the day I die."
Did you always like horses? "I did. I remember being here at Santa Anita when I was 8. My father got a job working on the grounds. He thought everything was crooked. One day I'm standing by the winner's circle. This well-dressed guy comes up to me and says, 'What are you doing, son?' I said, 'My dad works here.' He says, 'Aren't you a little young to be here?' It was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt."
What was your first job at the track? "I was drafted by the Army. After I got out, I was going to lay around the house. My brother told me to get my butt up to Tanforan. Warren was galloping for Yorkie McLeod. I went to work for him."
What are your memories of Snow Chief, the 1986 Preakness winner? "He just always fired. He wanted to be a good horse. The only problem was he was a failure as a stallion. He ran horrible at the Kentucky Derby. I flew him in just before the race. I thought that was the way to go. He blew out real fast the day before the race, then ran horrible. The next morning, I was about to fly out. We got to the barn real early. The groom wasn't even out yet. A doctor friend of mine held him while I washed the mud off his legs. Snow Chief always tried to bite. My friend is saying, 'Mel, hurry up, hurry up, these hands are worth a million dollars, and he's trying to bite me.' Out of the shadows comes Charlie Whittingham, who takes the horse. He had won the Derby with Ferdinand. He says to me, 'Throw the Derby out and think about the Preakness.' So off we went to the Preakness. The day before the race, he blows out in 34 flat. Now everybody's all excited. Carl Grinstead, who owned the horse with Ben Rochelle, tells the press, 'Stute's done it again. He left his race on the track.' I said, 'Carl, how could you say that? I'll be hung in effigy if he gets beat.' Fortunately, he won."
What about Very Subtle, who won the 1987 Breeders' Cup Sprint? "She was always so fast that she scared you. The day of the Breeders' Cup, the traffic was so heavy near Hollywood Park that I got out of the car and had my wife take the wheel while I took off jogging in a suit and tie. I just made it."
How did you end up with Brave Raj, your 1986 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner? "I was training for Dolly Green. She loved Snow Chief. She said, 'Why don't you buy me a good horse?' I told her about Brave Raj. She said she'd pay $300,000, but could somebody come by and pick up the check. She lived in Beverly Hills, next door to Tom Jones. I sent bloodstock agent Laurie Kahn right over to pick up that check"
Tell me the story about Advocatum working fast the day he won the 1981 Escondido Handicap on the grass at Del Mar: "The clockers had him working three-quarters in 1:11 that morning. One of the stewards, Mort Lipton, called and asked if I was going to scratch him. I told him I told the exercise boy to let him gallop out, but I didn't think he had worked that fast. After the second race, there's a page − 'Mel Stute, contact the stewards.' Mort asks me again, 'Did you tell that kid to work three-quarters? Are you going to scratch that horse?' I said, 'No, I'm not sure the kid did it.' So they run the race, and he sets a course record. Mort calls on the phone next to the winner's circle. 'Mel, is that exercise boy in the winner's circle?' I said, 'No, I fired him.' Mort says, 'Well, you better hire him back.' "
Your brother, Warren, used to blow out horses the morning of the race: "He once ran Figonero three times in 14 days, and the third race was his win in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He worked him 33 and 4/5 one morning, then turned and said, 'He'll run good this afternoon.' He would do that to prevent them from bleeding."
You were very close to your brother: "He did everything for me. He was the best trainer I ever saw. Second would be Allen Drumheller."
What's your favorite betting story? "I was down at Del Mar and had a horse come in that Jerry Fanning had been training at a ranch in Temecula. The horse hadn't run in six months. I'm ready to work him, so I get Bruce Headley, who was just a kid, to work him. We worked him in the dark. I couldn't see. Bruce says, 'I can whistle really loud. When I break off, I'll whistle, and you start the clock. When I get to the wire, I'll whistle again.' He works fast. The horse was owned by Harry Biszantz. I tell him he can bet. So a guy I know decides to go to Caliente to bet, so he won't kill the price. On his way there, he gets a flat tire. He calls the stewards and asks if they can tell Harry Biszantz to bet $500 for him. The horse wins. Headley runs into the winner's circle and says, 'Mel, don't feel too smart. I whistled way before I hit the wire.' "
You also have hit the pick six: "At Caliente, me and John Pappalardo and another guy hit the 5-10 for $117,000."
You have the distinction of having bars at Hollywood Park and Fairplex Park named for you: "Yes, but my daughters aren't too proud of that."
Best horse seen? "Native Dancer. The only race he lost was the Kentucky Derby. I never saw him run, but he came out to California one year to train, so I saw him train and gallop. One of the best horses I saw was Stagehand. He won the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap the same year."
Hobbies? "I love basketball. I used to go to all the Lakers games. I knew some of the referees. They weren't supposed to come to the races, but they'd sneak out."
Future ambitions? "Just put down that Mel Stute would appreciate any buyers of Annabelle Stute's horses."