Maybe the trainers of the five other starters in the $103,050 La Brea Stakes thought they had horses to build a dream on, but there were few people at Santa Anita who thought that Very Subtle could be beaten Saturday.
Very Subtle opened in the betting at 1-9--and probably would have been less if the tote board had room for another digit--and finally went off at 2-5, but Mel Stute, her superstitious trainer, was still concerned.
"A favorite hadn't won a stake race this season yet," Stute was saying later. "And then that other filly (Timely Assertion) broke through the gate just before the start, and I know my filly can have problems in the gate, too.
"You know, when we won the Breeders' Cup (Sprint), we were 16-1, so you can run second and still be a hero. But when you're 1-9 for a half-hour and everybody you see tells you that you can't lose, it makes you nervous."
Moments after Timely Assertion was returned to the gate by assistant starters, Very Subtle made poppycock of Stute's fears and laughingstocks of the opposition. Exploding from the gate in the seven-furlong race, she led by a couple of lengths down the backstretch, began pulling away from the field on the turn and reached the wire nine lengths in front of Saros Brig, with jockey Patrick Valenzuela giving her only one left-handed tap through the stretch.
The winning time, over a track that was still damp but listed as fast, was 1:21 3/5, the fastest clocking for the stake in five years. Saros Brig was a neck better than Fold the Flag, who had two lengths on the fourth-place finisher, Timely Assertion.
Very Subtle paid $2.80, $2.40 and $2.10. The other payoffs were $3.40 and $2.40 for Saros Brig and $2.40 for Fold the Flag.
After Very Subtle handed Groovy his only loss of the year in the Breeders' Cup Nov. 21, improving her record to 9 wins in 10 starts around one turn, it was surprising that even five other trainers entered their 4-year-old fillies in the La Brea. Wayne Lukas kept Julie the Flapper in the barn, and his other eligible, Sacahuista, has been injured. John Gosden sent his La Brea hopeful, Devil's Bride, to New York in order to avoid Very Subtle.
The win, Very Subtle's 11th in 17 starts, was worth $60,300 and increased her total to more than $1.3 million.
Stute bought Very Subtle for $30,000 as an unraced 2-year-old, then her ownership was absorbed equally by two of Stute's regular clients, Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle. After Grinstead died last March, Rochelle bought a 100% interest in the filly for $1.2 million at an October dispersal sale.
After Saturday's win, Stute and Rochelle joked about that sale. Rochelle thought a bid of $400,000 might buy her, but the bidding went to $1 million, and a rival who was bidding on the telephone to Hollywood Park raised that offer by $100,000.
"The auctioneer wouldn't bang that gavel (on the $1-million bid)," Grinstead said. "I wanted to hit him in the face."
Faced with topping a $1.1-million bid, Stute, sitting next to Rochelle, turned and said: "Why don't you just make it $1.5 million, and we'll end all this."
To which Rochelle said: "Now let's don't do anything foolish."
Stute and Rochelle will learn Tuesday whether Very Subtle wins any postseason honors. She could be named best sprinter and best 3-year-old filly for 1987, and she could also be beaten out for both honors, by Groovy in one division and either Sacahuista or Personal Ensign in the other.
"I can't believe they won't give her sprinter," Stute said. "But just like with 1-9 shots, something can always happen. But if she wins, then Ben and I can go back to New York (for the Eclipse Awards dinner Feb. 5) and visit some of his old nightclubs."
Rochelle, 76, and his late wife, Jane, were vaudevillians who had a comedy dance act that toured the country.
When Very Subtle quits racing, Rochelle plans to breed her to Snow Chief, the champion 3-year-old colt of 1986 who also raced for him and Grinstead.
Valenzuela expected Very Subtle to be on the lead Saturday. "It was like a seven-furlong workout," he said. "In the last 30 yards, I eased up on her and she did her old routine of stopping. When you ease up, she eases up herself."
Gary Stevens rode Saros Brig. "At the three-eighths pole, Pat just let Very Subtle run, and whoosh," Stevens said. "I couldn't keep up. By the eighth pole, my filly didn't have a clue that the winner was out there."
Although Very Subtle is vulnerable going beyond a mile, Stute plans to run her in the 1 1/16-mile El Encino Stakes Jan. 23 and the To get her ready for the longer distances, Stute plans a more relaxed training schedule.
"I've had her real sharp every time I've run her," the trainer said. "She's a temperamental horse to train. But I'm going to try galloping her two miles at a time. I very seldom do that with one of my horses, but I'm going to try it with her. If it doesn't work out, we'll go back to the sprints."
There are trainers of sprinters all over the country who hope that Stute's two-mile gallops work out.
Horse Racing Notes
Until Power Forward won Saturday's seventh, favorites had failed to win 23 straight races at Santa Anita. Then they won the last three--Very Subtle and L.A. Fire clicking after Power Forward. . . . Power Forward was claimed by trainer Hal King for $40,000 Sept. 6 at Del Mar and has won four races since then. King also saddled Grand Vizier, who ran second to Power Forward Saturday. . . . Patrick Valenzuela and Sandy Hawley rode three winners apiece. . . . Timely Assertion had handed Very Subtle two of her six losses. "When your filly breaks through the gate (like Timely Assertion), you're dead," trainer Henry Moreno said. . . . Mel Stute has saddled 382 winners at Santa Anita--300 at the winter meeting, 82 at Oak Tree.