The other morning, somebody asked trainer Mel Stute if he owned a tuxedo.
"Used to have one," Stute said. "I must have had it for 20 years. Never got much use out of it, though. I think Gary used it more than I did, going to junior-senior proms and such."
Gary Stute, Mel's 30-year-old son, who's also an assistant trainer for his father, was sitting nearby.
"I remember that tux," Gary Stute said. "I think it was paisley. A real horror."
These are the times when successful Mel Stute doesn't have to share a tuxedo with his son, and the senior member of the family should need to look like a penguin when the Eclipse Awards are handed out at a fancy hotel in San Francisco on Feb. 6.
At 59, some 39 years after he took out his first trainer's license, Stute is going like 60. He is finishing his best year and has a shot at winning three of racing's top awards. He is odds-on to win one, a lukewarm favorite to capture a second and a longshot to take a third. Stute's closet has a second lifetime tuxedo in its future. Only in question is the number of acceptance speeches the trainer will need in San Francisco.
One speech Stute can begin preparing now is for Brave Raj, who won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita on Nov. 1 and clinched the title in that division.
The Breeders' Cup was the second $1 million race a Stute horse has captured this year. Snow Chief, winner of the $1 million Hollywood Futurity in 1985, took the $1 million Jersey Derby at Garden State Park last May. That win, plus victories in the Florida Derby, the Santa Anita Derby and the Preakness, would be enough to clinch honors in the 3-year-old colt division in many years, but this time there might be an aberration in the voting. Manila, a grass sensation who has never faced Snow Chief, is a possibility for a title usually associated with dirt runners.
In a race that shouldn't help him or hurt him in the voting, Snow Chief, out since July because of knee surgery, runs today in the $100,000 Malibu Stakes as Santa Anita opens its 50th season with a nine-race program that starts at noon.
Among the opponents in the 12-horse field of 3-year-olds is Ferdinand, who beat Snow Chief while winning the Kentucky Derby, then ran second to Stute's colt in the Preakness.
It has been Snow Chief, Brave Raj and Very Subtle, another 2-year-old filly, who have propelled the Stute barn into national prominence and given the conditioner a remote chance to win the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer.
The honor is likely to go to either Wayne Lukas or Charlie Whittingham. Although the Stute operation is fourth nationally and could approach the $5 million mark in purses with a win by Snow Chief today, he still doesn't have the cold numbers to compete with Lukas, whose stable has a record $12.1 million, or Whittingham, who is well over the $8 million mark.
If Stute's owners--there are dozens--could vote, he would be a shoo-in. "Mel doesn't have the most fashionable bloodlines to work with," says Jack Liebau, a Stute client. "His three top horses are by sires whose total stud fees were under $10,000. That's not even a down payment for some stallions."
The Stute style has always been to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. First Balcony, his first prominent horse, cost $20,000 and won the Californian at Hollywood Park in 1961; Telly's Pop, a $6,000 yearling, won the California Derby in 1976.
Very Subtle is another horse in this mold. Stute bought her at a 2-year-old auction last March for $30,000. Three days later, Carl Grinstead, who bred Snow Chief and races him with Ben Rochelle, called Stute to see if he had any horses to sell.
"I've only got one left," Stute said, referring to Very Subtle, "but the second day after the sale, she came up dead lame."
That didn't dissuade Grinstead. "Let's wait a week and see how she is then," he said.
It turned out that Very Subtle's lameness was due to a minor hoof infection and Grinstead and Rochelle bought her for the same $30,000 Stute had paid. Very Subtle finished the year undefeated in her only four starts, winning the Hollywood Starlet on Nov. 30 to put her earnings at $308,000.
"That was a lucky buy . . . for Carl," Stute said, chuckling. "Another horse out of the same sale cost me $48,000. She's running for my wife (Annabelle) and she's still a maiden."
It has been a year when Stute can afford a mistake or two. "When Snow Chief went by the wayside, it looked like the year was over," Stute said. "Then along came Brave Raj. And then Very Subtle."
Despite Stute's signal year, he can't visualize getting out of the claiming game. Other trainers move up when touched by the success of major horses. Bobby Frankel, a claiming trainer in New York and a claiming trainer when he first came to California, now deals almost exclusively with allowance and stakes horses these days, and hasn't claimed a horse in a couple of years.
Frankel also hardly ever bets a race anymore, restraint that is foreign to Stute. This year, Stute seemed as proud of having won the trifecta in the Florida Derby and the exacta in the Preakness as he was training Snow Chief to win both of those races.
"I could never leave claiming," Stute said. "I'm a gambler. I like to see all the races every day."
Horse Racing Notes
Pat Valenzuela will ride Snow Chief today, because Alex Solis is sidelined with a broken thumb and leg. Solis has ridden Snow Chief in 8 of his 9 stakes wins and in 14 of the colt's 17 starts. Rafael Meza, the only other jockey to ride Snow Chief, had the mounts in his first three starts, then several other jockeys had the chance to ride the horse before Solis got the assignment for the first time in the Del Mar Futurity in September of 1985. . . . Santa Anita, which opened on Christmas day in 1934, did not operate from 1941 through 1944 because of World War II. . . . After today, post time will be 12:30 until Feb. 18, when it changes to 1 p.m. The 88-day meeting closes on April 20. The regular schedule is racing on Wednesdays through Sundays, but there will be other cards next Tuesday, as well as the Mondays of Jan. 19, Feb. 16 and April 20.