For every sweet, declarative line of praise written about Bill Shoemaker and Ferdinand after the Kentucky Derby, there was a sharp, skeptical one about Mel Stute and Snow Chief.
Here he was coming into the Derby unbeaten as a 3-year-old, dependable Snow Chief, winner of seven of eight races since October, repeated conqueror of Badger Land and Ferdinand; Snow Chief, the Frog Prince of thoroughbreds, the people's choice, their favorite. How fast and how far he had fallen, from just on the lead by a breath at the top of the stretch to 11th, 19 lengths back, at the finish. How sudden, like a squall, were the questions upon them.
Was Snow Chief overraced?
Was he undertrained?
Had his breeding caught up to him?
Was he ridden poorly?
The questions weren't confined to the grandstand and the press box, they were being asked on the backside, too. "The horse was so incredibly honest throughout his whole career that a clunker like that was boggling," said Ferris Allen, trainer of Miracle Wood. "Once a horse gets bounced, you begin looking for reasons to doubt him."
Even Stute began looking, both at the horse and in the mirror, questioning his own methods, concluding that maybe he should have gone to Churchill Downs earlier and worked the horse a mile on that track. The Derby was a terrible shock and disappointment to Stute. On the biggest day of his professional life he had failed terribly and publicly. As resolutely as he expressed his continued confidence in the horse, today he finally allowed that much of that was just "a front." Stute admitted, "The Derby left me really wondering." He understood why people broke faith with Snow Chief; he conceded it was justified.
There is nothing so cold as yesterday's romance, nothing so worn as yesterday's dream. "Everybody sort of gave up on him," sighed Stute. Alas, poor Snow Chief, we knew you well. Now get out of here, you knucklehead, and we mean it.
Snow Chief's Derby embarrassment -- that foolishly close chase after the suicidal Groovy -- was so profound that some expected him to go home to California and skip the Preakness. This was not unprecedented. Two years ago, Althea was the Derby favorite, but after watching her clang around 19th, D. Wayne Lukas said enough was enough, no mas. Stute's bewilderment at his horse's form brought him to the verge of a similar decision. But upon examining Snow Chief the morning after the Derby, Stute concluded there was nothing wrong with the horse and, more or less, he chalked the race up to fortune. "I couldn't find any reason for him to get beat like that. The airplane was leaving for the Preakness; I said, 'Let's put him on it.' So we did."
Stute never denied that part of his motivation in running the Preakness was revenge. He always said it with a smile on his face, like he did the other morning at the Alibi Breakfast, but he always said it. "I'm no genius -- I've said that before -- but this is a good horse," Stute insisted. "I kind of wanted him to redeem himself."
And it would follow, wouldn't it, that if Snow Chief redeemed himself, that Stute would be consequently redeemed, as well, swept along in the tide. There would be no more sleepless nights -- and Stute had some -- no more of this Dosage Index mumbo jumbo, no more solicitous pats on the back as if he were some kind of lounge act singer who couldn't cut it in the big room. Where Snow Chief went, Stute would follow. Redemption was a tango they would dance together. Stute was betting on it.
And so it was extra sweet when Stute saw Snow Chief cross the finish line four lengths in front of everyone else and cruising in today's Preakness -- the 25th anniversary of the basely bred Carry Back winning here. Snow Chief had achieved metaphoric linkage, and Stute, fullness. "It gives me a little extra," he said, joyfully puffing up his cheeks. "There was some second-guessing of things I'd done, I know that. Today, he vindicated my judgment. Call it self-centered, but I feel a lot more important today."
The questions are answered now. Stute got the race he wanted out of Snow Chief and the ride he wanted out of Alex Solis. Before the race, Ferris Allen predicted that Snow Chief would again go after Groovy and would end up, sadly, "another in a long line of horses that Groovy has ruined." But Stute wanted no part of Groovy this time, telling Solis, "Forget Groovy. The rail is faster. Get to the rail and ride him like you own him and you need the money."
Ironically, Groovy set a far slower pace in this race than he did in the Derby, but tired sooner, and Snow Chief found himself in the lead, as all alone as a hawk in a Kansas sunset. Craig Perret was on Groovy, and as he felt his horse fading he called out to Solis, "Go ahead, Alex, you got it." And as the crowd cheered its champion, Mel Stute, more than anyone, understood that it's not what you've done, as much as what you've done lately.