You can tell right away Snow Chief isn't Swaps. Or Secretariat. Or Man o' War. He's not this big gorgeous redhead or golden chestnut. No one ever called him "a living flame" on the race track.
He's little. He's--well, not slow. But not fast, either. Disney would have loved him, but he might get rejected for John Wayne. He's not the prettiest horse in the paddock. He's coal black to the naked eye but listed as "brown" in the complicated color system of thoroughbred racing guides.
All he does is beat you. If he were human and a ballplayer, he'd be an Eddie Stanky. God didn't give him this whirlwind speed, this raw talent, long strides or the one stupendous move of a Secretariat. He's not like a golfer who woke up one day with this gorgeous swing. He's like a Ben Hogan who had to make one for himself with dogged determination.
"If he was a fighter, he'd be an infighter," his trainer, Mel Stute says, "a swarmer. He'd be like Marciano, he'd never let up."
He comes to run. How many thoroughbreds can you name who won the Hollywood Futurity, California Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby and Jersey Derby in a half a year? Have saddle, will travel. He might have won one in Minnesota if his stable didn't allow itself to be talked out of it.
Race horses, it seems, have pretty fragile egos. They usually wilt when the going gets tough. They're easily discouraged, most of them. They pack it in.
Snow Chief went back to the Kentucky Derby last year with all those victories behind him and a big California and Florida reputation. He went off the 2-1 favorite and big things were expected of him.
He got shuffled back and manhandled by the big field like a vanity horse in there to carry some disc jockey's or Hollywood director's colors just to say he ran in it. He finished 11th in the 16-horse field, beaten by 19 1/2 lengths. It was like getting your hat pulled down over your eyes or being socked in the face by a cream pie. Snow Chief would never be the same, the railbirds predicted. He had whipped Ferdinand at Santa Anita, but he probably never would again. Just another California horse who couldn't run anywhere palm trees didn't grow.
Two weeks later to the day, Snow Chief rebounded to beat Ferdinand again--and become only the second California-bred in history to win the Preakness. A week and a half after that, he beat the flower of Eastern racing in the Jersey Derby. Sometimes, maybe most times, it's better to be tough than brilliant.
However he does it, Snow Chief is now the second-best California-foaled colt in the history of racing (Swaps is first, Native Diver may get some attention for second but never posted the national record of the other two) and he is the 3-year-old horse of the year certified by last week's Eclipse Award.
None of it has come easy. Snow Chief was not exactly born on the wrong side of the track, so to speak, but dear old dad was an undistinguished runner and the girl that, in a manner of speaking, married dear old dad never won anything.
No oil sheiks were bumping up the bidding for this runtish dead-end kid at the gold-backed auctions, and co-owner Carl Grinstead turned the colt over to his pal Stute, an old hand at handling horses who had to work to win. When Snow Chief bucked his shins, Stute didn't have to open a book to see what to do. He'd had whole stablefuls of buck-shinned colts and mares in his day. He sent Snow Chief to Mexico partly to save money and partly because that's where Stute and Grinstead always sent the kind of stock they were used to.
Stute noticed something about Snow Chief: He didn't like to lose. And he didn't sulk when he did. He didn't get worse, he got even.
When Snow Chief lost to the filly, Melair, in a mile dash at Hollywood Park, which they wrote just to include the Preakness Winner last July, Stute knew something was wrong. A chip in the right knee took Snow Chief off the track for the rest of the season.
When he returned to take up against his old foes from the Triple Crown races, at Santa Anita last month, he seemed at first to have lost a step. Ferdinand beat him in the Malibu with his ears pricking and he finished down the track in the San Fernando to Variety Road whom he used to beat like an old carpet a year ago.
The bettors lost some faith in Snow Chief. The handicappers lost more. When Stute picked up his Racing Form on the morning of the $500,000 Strub Stakes on Sunday, he saw that not one of the paper's prognosticators had picked his colt.
That's like taking your eye off Eddie Stanky with a man on third. Snow Chief went out in the mile-and-a-quarter Strub and ran the kind of here-match-this-guys kind of race he usually throws in after a defeat. It was Stanky-getting-on base, Fritzie-Zivic-working-the-body. He ran just fast enough to win. When Angel Cordero on Broad Brush was looking for room to run, Snow Chief didn't give him any. When Ferdinand came charging at him in the stretch, Snow Chief got stubborn. When Ferdinand hit him, he hit him back. He kept his nose in front.
It was vintage Snow Chief. Even Stute thought he had lost. Even the rider, Pat Valenzuela, wasn't sure. Snow Chief knew. He had settled another old score.
He goes next in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8. It may be said of Snow Chief what was said of another doughty old campaigner of the track, Johnny Longden: "You can get to him--but you can't get by him." He might get beat. But, if you beat him, it's a good idea to get out of town. You might never do it again.