05/19/2010 11:00PM

Small in size, but a big-time talent


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Snow Chief was short on pedigree, but long on ability. And the small dark bay epitomized the Mel Stute philosophy of training.

"I don't know if he was the best horse, but he was my kind of horse," Stute said. "And I used him pretty hard."

That was 25 years ago, when horses were durable and allegiances lasted more than just one season. And for California racing fans who cheered Snow Chief coast to coast, spring 2010 is the farewell to an era.

Snow Chief died one week ago, on May 15, at age 27. It is sad only for those who missed his show, and what a show it was.

"So many things happened to him," Stute recalled this week.

He was sired by Reflected Glory and produced by Miss Snowflake, who Stute said won her maiden for a $2,500 tag at Agua Caliente in Tijuana. Humble family aside, Snow Chief won 13 races and $3,383,210 from 24 starts. He tipped his hand early.

His breeder, Carl Grinstead, kept a string at Caliente, and before Snow Chief ran he was on the market. As a 2-year-old in June 1985, he worked seven furlongs.

"Supposedly he worked 1:22; the track was fast," Stute said.

There were no buyers for the colt, though Grinstead later sold Ben Rochelle a half-interest in a 15-horse package, Snow Chief included.

His debut would be June 19 at Hollywood Park.

"In those days, you could only come out of Caliente [once a week]," Stute said."I think Tuesdays you could cross the border."

Snow Chief shipped that week, and the day before his race worked three furlongs from the gate.

"We always blew them out three-eighths in those days . . . the old days," Stute said.

Snow Chief won by 2 1/2, ran back 11 days later, and shin-bucked finishing sixth in the Hollywood Juvenile.

It was back down to Caliente.

"They blistered him and got him ready again," Stute said.

Snow Chief returned to Stute at Del Mar and won a sprint stakes in early September. The 1985 meet was almost over, and Grinstead had ambitious plans. He wanted Snow Chief to wheel back seven days later in the Del Mar Futurity, a mile race around two turns.

Stute was reluctant.

"Carl, he's never even been around the first turn," he said.

Grinstead was resolute, and said, "Well, that's up to you, but I want to run him."

Stute relented.

Between starts, "I blew him out three-eighths around the first turn, and he finished third," Stute said. "That's when I said to Carl, 'You've got a good horse here.' "

Snow Chief ran five more times as a 2-year-old and ended the season with a blowout in the Hollywood Futurity. In his first four starts at 3, all stakes, he won sprint at Santa Anita, a route at Bay Meadows, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, and the Santa Anita Derby by six lengths.

Unfortunately, the Kentucky Derby was a fiasco. Snow Chief chased a wickedly fast pace and finished 11th as the favorite. The Charlie Whittingham-trained Ferdinand won the Derby.

It was still dark at Churchill Downs the morning after the Derby, and the groom for Snow Chief was a no-show. Stute had a flight to catch. He and a guest, Dr. David Brown, were having trouble bathing Snow Chief.

"Out of nowhere, Charlie Whittingham came up in the dark and said to Doc, 'Give me that son of a bitch,' " Stute recalled. "He snatched him a couple times, I washed his legs off and I took him in the stall, where they had an extension cord and a light.

"I was feeling his legs and Charlie said, 'Mel, if you're worried about the way he ran - don't. I ran a filly in the Oaks that was [favored], and finished a very bad fourth. So if you were planning on going to the Preakness, you go ahead and go.' "

Two weeks later, benefitting from a slower pace, Snow Chief won the Preakness by four lengths over Ferdinand. Stute expected a visit from Whittingham, his friend and foe.

"Here comes Charlie, and he says to me, 'God damn it Mel, I might have cost myself the Triple Crown telling you to come. You should have stayed home.' "

The Preakness was Snow Chief's sixth win from his last seven starts, and Stute scrapped the Belmont.

"We'd already lost the Derby, so there was no sense trying the Triple Crown thing," Stute said.

Nine days after the Preakness, they shipped to Garden State, where Snow Chief won the $1 million Jersey Derby.

Although he chipped a knee in his next start, finishing third to the filly Melair in the Silver Screen Handicap, Show Chief's 6-for-7 record was enough to be named champion 3-year-old. At 4, he won the Strub at Santa Anita and set a track record at Oaklawn Park.

Early this week, Stute spent an evening watching Snow Chief videos and reliving the 1987 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.

"That was the most exciting race I've ever seen," Stute said. "That's when Trevor [Denman] won me over. He said, they're just waiting to pounce on the Chief, they pounced . . . but then Denman said, 'the little horse is finding more.' "

He usually did.

"Snow Chief was not real big," Stute said. "But he'd do anything you asked him to do."