The most cherished memories of the Kentucky Derby are the rags-to-riches stories of such horses as Canonero II and Spend a Buck, but they were practically elitists compared to the strong favorite for Saturday's race, Snow Chief.
Most of the low-priced horses who have triumphed here were ones whose pedigrees contained virtues that hadn't been discovered yet. Snow Chief, by contrast, was cut out to be an absolute bum. He gives hope to everyone who has ever bred or raised a cheap horse and entertained a fleeting dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.
Snow Chief's daddy, 22-year-old Reflected Glory, stood for a $2,000 fee before being retired from stud duty this season. (You could breed 150 mares to him for what it costs to breed once to Nijinsky II, the sire of one of Snow Chief's rivals here.) The price is no bargain, for in 15 years of stud duty, Reflected Glory has never before sired a son of any note.
And he's the strong part of Snow Chief's bloodlines. Carl Grinstead, the colt's co-owner, attempted to defend slights against Reflected Glory, but he conceded, "The dam's side of the pedigree is a little weak." No wonder Grinstead was wearing a cap that read, "Yes, there is a Santa Claus: Snow Chief."
Mel Stute has been training cheapies like this for his entire career -- long enough that he doesn't harbor any illusions about their possibilities. He has become one of the West Coast's most successful trainers -- and one of the best in America at handling low-grade stock -- by being a realist.
So when Snow Chief started showing as a 2-year-old that he was going to be a stakes-class distance runner, Stute didn't think about him the way Woody Stephens or Wayne Lukas would think about a colt with a million-dollar pedigree. He thought like Mel Stute: Let's get the money -- now!
Most trainers of top Derby prospects try to freshen them over the winter and sharpen them in the spring, but Stute has run Snow Chief in at least one big-money stakes race every month since September.
Plenty of people thought that schedule would take its toll by the springtime, but Snow Chief hasn't slowed down. "I kind of believe he's actually improved with every race," Stute said. "I thought his last race, the Santa Anita Derby, was his best yet."
As he has scored six straight decisive triumphs and amassed earnings of $1.7 million, Snow Chief has displayed more than durability; he has shown a range of talents and qualities that add up to what horsemen generally define as "class."
When reporters asked Stute this morning what makes Snow Chief so good, the trainer couldn't resist answering: "It's his heart. He just wants to run. You lead him out there and he gives his best every time. He'll be in the stretch with nobody near him and he still wants to run."
If that is too sentimental, a more hard-headed explanation of Snow Chief's record is his versatility and adaptability. When he encountered a fast pace in the $1 million Hollywood Futurity, he lay off the pace and swooped past the field. When he got into a Santa Anita Derby field with no speed, he went to the front. When he drew the tough No. 12 post position in the Florida Derby, he popped out of the gate and got to the rail.
Snow Chief has coped with so many different conditions that Stute actually seems relaxed as he prepares for the biggest race of his life. When people cite some of the various knocks against Snow Chief's chances, he can shrug them all off.
"Let's see," Stute said. "He won't have raced in 27 days before the Derby. He won't have a workout over the track. He doesn't have the pedigree. No Cal-bred has won the Derby in 22 years. I've never won the Derby. He's going to have to be a superstar to win it. And I think he might be."