Odd Supporting Cast Surrounds Snow Chief
A superstitious trainer who’ll do anything to get out of the way of a black cat.
A normally mild-mannered jockey who almost climbed into the stands recently to get to a heckler.
A retired song-and-dance man who says he’s having the most fun he has had since vaudeville.
A long-struggling horseman who appreciates the importance of the bottom line.
The wife of the long-struggling horseman, who feeds their horse carrots and thrives on collecting the horse’s newspaper clippings .
This is the Snow Chief crowd, which is likely to draw a crowd if the 3-year-old colt survives the last hurdle, today’s $500,000 Santa Anita Derby, and heads on to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby May 3.
At the Kentucky Derby in recent years, there have been the Seattle Slew crew, the Spectacular Bid troupe and the Spend a Buck bunch, but none can match the variety of the Snow Chief crowd.
The horse’s supporting cast looks like this:
RHYMES WITH DUTY
One morning recently, Mel Stute was making his way from barn 97 at Santa Anita out to the track. Along the way, he spotted a black cat in the distance.
Anybody superstitious, as Stute is, must have black cats high on his list of avoidances. But this cat seemed determined to cross Stute’s path. Stute was equally determined to avoid her.
“I must have looked like a fool,” Stute said later. “I was backpedaling and going sideways so fast that I went through (trainer) Jerry Fanning’s manure pile. But at least I missed the cat.”
Gary Gregory, Stute’s assistant trainer, picked up the story, dead serious.
“That was (Sandy) Shulman’s cat,” Gregory solemnly said, indicting another trainer.
“Was it?” Stute said.
Later, Shulman confessed. “Her name’s Christina,” he said. “And I got another one, her twin, at home. Her name’s Madeline.”
Stute must have steered clear of black cats all last year, because his barn earned close to $3 million, the best the 58-year-old trainer has done since he took out his first license in 1947.
Stute has tasted Kentucky Derby fever before, having almost gone to Louisville with Telly’s Pop in 1976, and he actually started Bold ‘n Rulling at Churchill Downs in 1980. Telly’s Pop, owned by Telly Savalas and Howard W. Koch, suffered knee problems after winning the California Derby. Bold ‘n Rulling, after leading the Derby for three-fourths of a mile, broke down and never raced again.
“We may need an entire airplane if we go this year,” Stute said. “I’ve got about 15 owners and we’re a tightly knit bunch and everybody wants to go. It should be some party.”
THE PANAMANIAN CONNECTION
A leading rider on the Miami, Fla., circuit, Alex Solis moved to California last summer. For a jockey who won his first race as recently as 1981 in his native Panama City, Solis has made a quick transition in the United States.
In 1983, Solis won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah with Current Hope, but early on he was saying that Snow Chief was better--the best horse he had ever ridden.
Last year, the Daily Racing Form credited Solis with 177 winners and $3.8 million in purses.
Solis, who turned 22 last month, has made the most of the opportunity since be rode Snow Chief for the first time, as Stute’s third choice, in the Del Mar Futurity last September.
Rafael Meza rode Snow Chief his first three races, winning twice, and Stute wanted to stay with the same rider at Del Mar.
“Meza’s agent came to me and said that the Bolger Magic people wouldn’t let him off their horse in the Futurity,” Stute said. “Then I wanted Pat Valenzuela, but he preferred to ride Wayne Lukas’ filly (Arewehavingfunyet) in the race. So that’s how I came to get Alex.”
Snow Chief, running around two turns for the first time, finished third at Del Mar, behind Tasso and Arewehavingfunyet, but Solis kept the mount and since then he and the colt have won six and finished second twice in eight starts. Solis also rides Sari’s Heroine, a 3-year-old filly trained by Stute, who won the Sorority Stakes Friday at Golden Gate Fields.
The smartest thing Stute has done in the career of Snow Chief was done at Solis’ urging. Blinkers were put on the horse after his second-place finish in the Hoist the Flag Stakes at Hollywood Park last November and he’s won four straight since then.
“He was racing green, and I thought the blinkers would help,” Solis said.
Stute resisted the equipment change until after Snow Chief lost a race. It’s a lot like avoiding black cats.
A NEW TEAM
During a 25-year career in show business, Ben Rochelle performed with his wife, Jane. They were known as Rochelle and Beebe, which was Jane’s maiden name.
Now it’s Grinstead and Rochelle, Ben having bought into Carl Grinstead’s horse operation in mid-1984.
Rochelle, who had known Grinstead from race-track chats in Mel Stute’s box, wanted to buy an interest in Sari’s Dreamer, even though she had won only 1 of 23 starts.
Grinstead insisted that Rochelle become a 50% partner in all 20 horses that he owned. While Rochelle debated that step, Sari’s Dreamer finished second in a stake, and he decided he better move quickly before the price went up.
Seven weeks after they closed the deal, Sari’s Dreamer, a one-time claiming horse, won the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood.
Rochelle feels more comfortable talking about his old show-biz days than horses, but actually he’s been a handicapper for some time. That gives him quite a bit in common with Stute, who seemed as proud of picking the trifecta in the Florida Derby as he was of training Snow Chief to win the race.
“I like to gamble, I think that’s why I’m here,” said the 75-year-old Rochelle, who lost his wife about three years ago. Rochelle said that when he played the vaudeville circuit, he’d find crap games and it wasn’t unusual for him to blow his two-week paycheck the first night he hit town.
The last time Rochelle played Louisville, he was at the Brown Hotel, which has been torn down and rebuilt. If Rochelle makes it to Louisville this time, he’ll be more than a supporting act on the bill.
THE SHIP COMES IN
“I don’t mind spending, it’s just that I want something for my money.”
Carl Grinstead, who is in his early 70s, once owned a manufacturing company that made instruments for military missiles. He has owned and bred horses for more than 25 years and had five minor stakes winners before he hooked up with Ben Rochelle.
More often than not, a good racing year for Grinstead was to break even, which explains his cost-conscious approach to the game.
At one time, Grinstead trained his own horses, figuring he could do just as well as the next fellow and he wouldn’t have to pay the fees.
Grinstead, who moved to Chula Vista when he retired, sends many of his young horses to Caliente, where the expenses are less than at Santa Anita and where it’s only a 30-minute drive from Grinstead’s home. It was at Caliente where Wilfrido Martinez, another of Grinstead’s trainers, spotted Snow Chief’s nascent talents and recommended that the colt be sent to Mel Stute.
In the 1970s, Grinstead sold his ranch and wanted to unload most of his horses, but his timing was bad. The first day of the sale was the day for the funeral of Alvaro Pineda, a jockey who had died after a starting-gate accident at Santa Anita.
“Understandably, hardly anybody came,” Grinstead said. “And the second day wasn’t much better.”
Grinstead took back some of his stock, including Bold Jewel, the dam of Miss Snowflake, who is the dam of Snow Chief. Grinstead bred Miss Snowflake to Reflected Glory--the mating that resulted in Snow Chief--because he liked A Kiss for Luck, a major stakes winner that Reflected Glory had sired.
“It was Ben’s idea that I make the decisions regarding the horses,” Grinstead said of Rochelle.
Added Rochelle: “You might call me a silent partner. Keep your mouth shut and you’re never wrong.”
IT’S IN THE CARDS
When Pearl Grinstead, Carl’s wife, meets a newspaperman, she asks him for his business card.
Pearl also clips everything that’s written about Snow Chief and is likely to reach into her purse and produce a photocopy of an article she especially likes. She also has friends around the country who send her articles about the horse.
In the process, Pearl has become a press critic, and she may be tougher on the media than Herb Schmertz.
For Pearl, the San Diego newspapers don’t run enough articles about racing. And she says the San Diego edition of The Times is continually running stories about the Padres instead of coverage of Snow Chief.
“Who do I write to, to have this situation corrected?” she asked at the Florida Derby. Given the names, she wrote them down.
If the Grinsteads were superstitious they wouldn’t have even shown up at the Florida Derby.
“When we got to our hotel a few days before the race, they didn’t have a key for the room,” Pearl Grinstead said. “Then, when they finally found us a key, we went upstairs and there was already somebody in the room.”
Sounds like somebody was just warming the Grinsteads up. In Louisville during Derby week, it’s even money that the same thing will happen.
Horse Racing Notes
Santa Anita’s gates and mutuel windows will open at 9 a.m. today, and the first race is set for noon. There will be no advance-play wagering. The Santa Anita Derby is the fifth race with a post time of about 2:40 p.m. PST. The Derby will be televised live nationally by ABC on “Wide World of Sports” but delayed for two hours locally (Channel 7 at about 4:40 p.m.). A second stakes, the $100,000 Hill Rise Handicap, will be run as the eighth race.
THE DERBY FIELD
PP Horse Odds (Jockey) 1. Variety Road 7-2 (McCarrron) 2. Ferdinand 4-1 (Shoemaker) 3. Snow Chief 3-5 (Solis) 4. Bugarian 30-1 (Kaenel) 5. Jetting Home 30-1 (McHargue) 6. Big Play 20-1 (Stevens) 7. Icy Grooms 10-1 (Delahoussaye) 8. Imperious Spirit 15-1 (Pincay)