Early Kentucky Derby favorite Snow Chief, who will bid to become only the fourth California-bred horse to win the opening jewel of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, led nearly all the way yesterday to easily win the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif.

The victory in the 49th running of the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds was the fifth in a row and the seventh in the last eight races for Snow Chief, who finished six lengths in front of Icy Groom.

Snow Chief, who was ridden by Alex Solis and is trained by Mel Stute, went off as the 3-to-10 favorite and paid $2.60, $2.60 and $2.20.

Stute believes he might have a super horse on his hands, comparable to Secretariat or Affirmed of recent years. "If you ask me, yes," Stute said when the question was posed. "I said before: If he could cook, I might leave my wife. He has a great burst of speed. He has the ability to retain his speed or use it whenever you like."

The winning time was 1:48 3/5, well off the stakes record of 1:47 set by Lucky Debonair in 1965 and equaled by Sham in 1973. The win was worth $275,000 to Snow Chief.

Snow Chief, who earned $945,740 last year, an all-time record for a 2-year-old, has lifetime earnings of $1,719,040. In 13 lifetime starts, the colt has nine wins, two seconds and one third.

Icy Groom, ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye, paid $5 and $3.20 and earned $100,000. Ferdinand, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, finished third, one length behind Icy Groom, and paid $3 to show. Third place was worth $75,000.

All seven entries carried 122 pounds each, four less than the weight assignment for the Kentucky Derby, which will be run at 1 1/4 miles on May 3.