Carl Grinstead, one of the owners of Snow Chief, thought he had won. Trainer Mel Stute, who was standing in an aisle in the box-seat area, said he had a perfect position in line with the wire and thought Snow Chief had lost.
Eddie Delahoussaye was riding Ferdinand, the horse who charged to the finish line almost stride for stride with Snow Chief. Unlike Grinstead and Stute, Delahoussaye wasn't wearing glasses, and his view was much closer. But Delahoussaye couldn't be sure who had won.
That's how close the 40th running of the Charles H. Strub Stakes was on Sunday at Santa Anita, with 58,806 fans just as unsure of the outcome as the principals.
Finally, the photo-finish camera showed that Snow Chief had beaten Ferdinand by the smallest of noses, and Charlie Whittingham, the trainer of the runner-up, shoved his hands in his pockets, looked at the ground and walked around just outside the winner's circle.
"Just one more jump," Whittingham said wistfully. Whittingham has won the Strub twice, but in three of the last four years he's found himself saying the same thing. In 1985, it was Precisionist over Whittingham's Greinton, by a nose just as short as on Sunday; in 1984, Desert Wine got to the wire a neck in front of Load the Cannons, another runner from Whittingham's barn.
Stute should have been the last observer to doubt that Snow Chief had won, because all week long he had convinced himself that his colt was going to dominate the $516,750 race.
Snow Chief, a victim of a bone chip that required knee surgery last July, hadn't won a race since his back-to-back Preakness and Jersey Derby conquests during a 10-day stretch last May, but Stute thought he had the blackish 4-year-old prepared perfectly for the Strub.
In fact, when Stute picked up The Daily Racing Form Saturday night, he couldn't believe his eyes, because none of the newspaper's selectors had picked Snow Chief to win. "I thought I might change my profession and become a professional handicapper," Stute said late Sunday.
Stute was so sure of victory that when Snow Chief led Ferdinand by a length at the top of the stretch, he envisioned winning by five.
"Obviously," Stute said, "Ferdinand had some kick left. Charlie (Whittingham) had him real tight for this one."
Near the wire, Snow Chief and Ferdinand bumped, Snow Chief being knocked almost sideways. Pat Valenzuela, who rode Snow Chief, told Stute that their horse had come out about four feet, but he thought Ferdinand drifted in more than twice that much.
Broad Brush, who had lost the San Fernando three weeks ago by a neck to Variety Road, with Snow Chief third and Ferdinand fourth, finished third in the Strub, 4 1/2 lengths behind Ferdinand. There was a seven-length gap back to Variety Road in fourth place in the eight-horse field.
Variety Road's trainer, Bruce Headley, had been confident going into the Strub, feeling that the extra eighth of a mile and the 119-pound impost (seven less than the first three finishers) would be advantageous, but jockey Laffit Pincay said that the colt "refused to run."
Snow Chief, the second choice after the crowd's pre-race preferences vacillated among him, Ferdinand and Broad Brush, paid $6.80, $4 and $2.60. Ferdinand, who went off as the 2-1 favorite, paid $3.80 and $2.60, and Broad Brush returned $2.60.
Snow Chief, running 1 miles in 2:00, which was the fastest Strub since Spectacular Bid set the American dirt record with a 1:57 4/5 clocking in the 1980 running of the stake, earned $291,750 for Grinstead and his partner, Ben Rochelle, and increased his career total to $3.1 million. Only three retired horses--John Henry, Spend a Buck and Slew o' Gold--have earned more, with John Henry's $6.5 million topping the list.
Like last year, Snow Chief's handlers will let the scent of money determine where they run the horse. The $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, on March 8, is next, and after that there is talk of an Eastern campaign, possibly even trying the Reflected Glory-Miss Snowflake California-bred on grass in time for the Budweiser-Arlington Million in late summer.
"He's (Snow Chief's) hard to beat when he sets his own pace," said Delahoussaye, who was riding Ferdinand for the first time because of Bill Shoemaker's knee surgery last Tuesday. Still, Delahoussaye would like to have another chance at Snow Chief with the Kentucky Derby winner in the Big 'Cap.
"I think Ferdinand will be tough, no matter whether I ride him or Shoe does," Delahoussaye said. "I just wish someone had gone out with him today."
When only Broad Brush did, Ferdinand, who usually comes from far back, was just outside the front two going down the backstretch.
On the turn for home, Snow Chief had the rail, Broad Brush was trying to hold on and Ferdinand was getting set to make his run from the outside. Broad Brush's rider, Angel Cordero, said Snow Chief got in his way.
"My horse was trying hard, but then the winner came out in front of me," Cordero said. "I had no choice but to pull up, and then my horse was done."
Had there been a foul by Snow Chief? Cordero shrugged, indicating it wasn't serious enough to claim one. Broad Brush had still lost by 4 1/2 lengths, and his trainer, Dick Small, said he had no problem with the way the race was run.
Neither did Valenzuela, Stute and the rest of the Snow Chief camp. "This horse looks as good as he ever has," Stute said.
It's a $3 million look, and the buck may not stop here.
Horse Racing Notes
Sunday's handle was $10.5 million, the fifth-highest in Santa Anita history. . . . Temperate Sil, winner of the Hollywood Futurity last year, is scheduled to make his debut as a 3-year-old in the San Vicente Stakes next Saturday. Bill Shoemaker said Sunday night that he would resume riding following knee surgery last Tuesday and would have the mount on Temperate Sil. "It's something isn't it," trainer Mel Stute said. "Snow Chief and Shoemaker had the same operation and it took Snow Chief six months to come back and it's taking Shoemaker something like three days."