After a lifetime in the thoroughbred business, Mel Stute can make this flat statement: "I've learned everything there is to learn about bad horses."
Unlike other trainers who upgrade the quality of their stock as they achieve some success, Stute has widespread respect as a top horseman who still has a barn full of cheapies. His clients include no bluebloods; they are owners who either breed their own modest horses or deal with claimers.
Yet all of the trainers who maintain fashionable stables at Santa Anita -- Wayne Lukas, Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera and the others -- have been watching Stute's performance this winter with a measure of awe.
In December, he saddled Snow Chief to win the state's richest race, the $1 million Hollywood Futurity. This month, his colt Right Con upset Proud Truth in the $200,000 San Fernando Stakes, one of his three stakes victories during a 10-day period. On Sunday, he will suffer from an embarrassment of riches; he will run Right Con in the $600,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, while Snow Chief goes in a $250,000 stake at Bay Meadows.
"I'm a firm believer that if you're here long enough you'll get some good horses," Stute said. But even after Stute has won training titles at the southern California tracks, nobody gives him good horses. He never has had a $100,000 yearling in his barn. He gets good horses by developing them, which is what he has done with the colt who may make him nationally famous.
Even by the standards of California's woeful breeding industry, Snow Chief has a horrible pedigree. His dam, Miss Snowflake, won one minor race; his sire, Reflected Glory, never had begotten a notable son in 16 years at stud. "Nobody would think that Snow Chief could be this kind of horse," Stute said. "He's just a freak."
The stretch-running colt ran well in stakes company throughout his 2-year-old season, but even after he had earned some $300,000, Stute thought he was underachieving. "Alex (jockey Alex Solis) said that even though he was winning he wasn't trying his best," Stute said. "So I put blinkers on him to help him keep his mind more on running. And he stopped goofing around."
That's putting it mildly. Snow Chief made a dazzling move on the turn to run away with the Hollywood Futurity and establish himself as one of the leading colts of his generation. Then he won the California Breeders' Championship to become the youngest equine millionaire in history. He will be an odds-on favorite to add to his bankroll in the El Camino Real Stakes at Bay Meadows in northern California on Sunday, but skeptics may wonder: Why is he bothering?
This time of year, serious candidates for the 3-year-old classics are usually rested so they can be fresh for a tough campaign in the spring. Tasso, the Eclipse Award winner but a colt without nearly as much talent as Snow Chief, has been idle since he won the Breeders' Cup in November and won't get back into gear until next month.
Stute said that he thought a one-race-a-month campaign would be optimal for his colt, but he added, "I do believe in getting the money now." When a man has spent as many years as Stute trying to win small pots with cheap horses, who can blame him?