Santa Anita Derby Draws Rags-to-Riches Field : Winner's Purse of $275,000 Once Could Have Purchased Most of the Entries

Times Staff Writer

Snow Chief isn't the only bargain colt that's making his way into the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby Sunday.

Imperious Spirit, Icy Groom and Jetting Home are other starters that will collect considerably more than their purchase price if they win the 1 1/8-mile race and its $275,000 purse.

Snow Chief, of course, long ago exceeded his humble beginnings, which were the result of breeding a $2,000 stallion (Reflected Glory) to a mare (Miss Snowflake) who had earned only $2,308 on the track.

Winning the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita and the Hollywood Futurity last year, Snow Chief earned $935,740, which was a record for a 2-year-old. This year, Snow Chief became racing's youngest millionaire when he won the California Breeders' Championship at Santa Anita in January. Two wins since then have swelled his career total to $1.4 million.

Jetting Home was a $40,000 claim by trainer Tommy Richardson last October and he boosted his bankroll to more than $100,000 with a win in the Baldwin Stakes on March 12.

Imperious Spirit was a $10,000 yearling purchase who's already earned almost $60,000 even though he's won only two races. In the Hollywood Futurity, however, Imperious Spirit finished 23 1/2 lengths behind Snow Chief, running ninth in a 10-horse field.

Although a well-bred colt, by Blushing Groom out of the Roberto mare, Hey Babe, Icy Groom, too, was bought for a relatively small sum--$110,000. Blushing Groom is an internationally renowned stallion, having sired Arc de Triomphe winner Rainbow Quest in addition to stakes winners Blush With Pride, Runaway Groom, Nassipour and Mt. Livermore in the United States.

Blushing Groom's stud fee has been a reported $275,000, but Icy Groom apparently came cheap because he was a smallish colt who was physically unattractive.

Other likely starters in the Santa Anita Derby are Ferdinand, Variety Road and Big Play. Entry time is this morning, with the likelihood that Jetting Home will run only if there's an off track.

Ferdinand and Variety Road were bred by their owners. Big Play cost Gene and Joyce Klein $175,000 at auction, a low price for them, considering that they've bid much higher for horses at yearling sales. Any trainer at Santa Anita could have had Big Play for $40,000 back in January, when he ran in a claiming race in his first career start.

Wayne Lukas, who trains Big Play, will also be trying to win Saturday's Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah with Badger Land. That's an easier assignment than Big Play's, since Badger Land will be heavily favored after running second to Snow Chief in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream and winning the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah in his last start two weeks ago.

Lukas' other Kentucky Derby prospect, Clear Choice, was second, beaten by a head, by Rare Brick in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park last Saturday.

Although it would seem likely that Lukas would next run Clear Choice, who's still a maiden, in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 19, he is undecided about his plans for his 3-year-olds.

"We'll see what happens in these races this weekend, and then go from there," Lukas said.

Mel Stute, who trains Snow Chief, is confident about his chances, both in Sunday's Santa Anita Derby and in the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

Sunday's opposition will have to be markedly improved to beat Snow Chief. Variety Road, for example, couldn't beat Snow Chief in the California' Breeders Stakes on Jan. 12, finishing four lengths back in second place even though he carried 11 fewer pounds than the winner.

Snow Chief carried 126 pounds--Kentucky Derby weight--that day. In the Santa Anita Derby, the starters will all run with 122 pounds.

Ferdinand finished third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Snow Chief, in last year's Hollywood Futurity. Although Ferdinand has obviously improved--he had only beaten maidens before the Futurity--he is still a colt with bad habits, having pulled himself up while leading in the stretch of the San Rafael Stakes, a move that cost him the win and helped Variety Road to victory.

On Jan. 15, the first deadline for nominating horses to the Triple Crown races, Icy Groom and Imperious Spirit weren't advanced enough to be considered by their owners. By the last deadline of March 17, however, they were made eligible, with the cost having increased from $600 to $3,000.

Two Santa Anita Derby riders--Laffit Pincay and Darrel McHargue--will be in New York Saturday for mounts in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, another important race on the trail to the Kentucky Derby. Pincay will ride favored Tasso in the Gotham and hurry back to Santa Anita to be aboard Imperious Spirit for the first time. McHargue, riding Zabaleta in the Gotham, has the call on Jetting Home in the Santa Anita Derby.

Stute was not impressed by either Badger Land's win in the Everglades or Tasso's victory in the Manassa Mauler Stakes at Aqueduct, the latter being the first start of the year for the champion 2-year-old colt of 1985.

"There wasn't much running behind Badger Land," Stute said. "And in the tape I saw of Tasso's race, his jockey (Eddie Maple) had to hit him seven or eight times through the stretch. It wasn't as easy of a win for him as it might have seemed."

Stute's colt and Tasso haven't met since Snow Chief ran third behind the victorious Tasso in the Del Mar Futurity last August--the third career start for Snow Chief and the fourth race for Tasso. Should they both make it to the Kentucky Derby, it will likely be billed as an East vs. West showdown, even though both horses had their beginnings in California.

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