Ever since the Kentucky Derby, trainer Mel Stute had been depressed and mystified by the dismal performance of Snow Chief. He knew it might be prudent to skip the Preakness, but he believed so strongly in his colt that he couldn't resist giving him one more chance.
Today, Stute's faith was abundantly rewarded. Before a record crowd of 87,652 at Pimlico, Snow Chief overpowered the same rivals who had beaten him in Kentucky, scoring a four-length victory over Derby-winner Ferdinand.
It was by far the best race of Snow Chief's career. His time of 1:54 4/5 was excellent over a slower-than-usual Pimlico track, only 1 2/5 seconds off the Preakness record set last year by Tank's Prospect.
"I got a little bit of revenge," said Stute, who had predicted a Derby victory for Snow Chief. "It vindicated my judgment in Snow Chief."
Snow Chief also was abetted by a perfect ride from 20-year-old Alex Solis, who had been subjected to some criticism for his ride at Churchill Downs, where the horse finished 11th. Solis took advantage of a relatively slow pace in the early stages of the Preakness, and that was the difference that probably accounted for the drastic change in the horse's form.
Everybody involved in the Preakness was acutely aware that the lightning-fast first half mile of the Derby had taken a toll on all the front-runners. So when the gate opened today, all of the riders were taking hold of the reins and trying to restrain their mounts.
The speedy Groovy went to the front, as usual, but instead of zipping a half mile in 45 1/5, as he did in the Derby, jockey Craig Perret slowed him down, going the first quarter in a dawdling 23 4/5 and the half in 47 2/5. Solis had Snow Chief positioned on the rail, just behind Groovy.
On the backstretch, the two leaders were four lengths ahead of the rest of the pack, and more than 10 lengths in front of Ferdinand and the favorite, Badger Land.
Since Snow Chief figured to dispose of the faint-hearted Groovy whenever Solis wanted, his position couldn't have been more ideal. Stute and the colt's owners, Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle, could feel their hopes soaring as the race developed. "When I saw that half-mile in 47 and change," Grinstead said, "I knew we were going to have a big shot."
As the leaders approached the final turn, the pace quickened. They hit the six-furlong mark in 1:11, and Groovy was starting to weaken. As he did, Snow Chief surged into command along the rail, and only the Maryland-bred Broad Brush was close enough to offer a challenge.
But he wasn't going anywhere, either.
Snow Chief opened a four-length lead early in the stretch, and even though Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker were rallying on the rail, they could never cut into his margin. "No excuse," said the 54-year-old Shoemaker, who was deprived of his shot at a Triple Crown. "He ran a good race, but he wasn't good enough to beat the winner."
Snow Chief maintained his four-length lead to the wire. Ferdinand was 6 1/2 lengths ahead of Broad Brush, who held on for third, a nose in front of Badger Land, who went off as the 9-to-5 favorite. Badger Land had no excuses otherwise. "They were stronger than him today," jockey Jorge Velasquez said.
Miracle Wood, Groovy and Clear Choice brought up the rear.
Snow Chief paid $7.20, $4.80 and $3.60. Ferdinand returned $4.80 and $3.20 and Broad Brush returned $3 to show. The exacta was worth $35.
The winner's effort was the most dramatic chapter of a great rags-to-riches saga. The son of a thoroughly undistinguished sire, Reflected Glory, whose stud fee was $2,000, Snow Chief is one of the worst-bred horses ever to become a contender in the Triple Crown series. But he mocked his origins and, with the astute and aggressive management of Stute, he amassed earnings of $1.7 million before the Kentucky Derby.
Hailed as the brightest star of his generation before the Derby, Snow Chief was almost forgotten after his Derby finish, nearly 20 lengths behind Ferdinand. What attention he did get mostly involved second-guessing of Stute's decision to come to Pimlico: Wasn't the horse trying to tell the trainer that he needed a rest?
But with his victory today, Snow Chief showed there was nothing physically wrong with him, that he wasn't tired -- that the pace was the explanation of his Derby defeat.
Having achieved this vindication, Snow Chief earned $411,900 to boost his career earnings beyond the $2 million mark -- with more to come. Stute indicated he probably would run his colt next in the $1 million Jersey Derby May 26 and skip the Belmont Stakes.
"I don't want to use him a mile and a half; the length of the Belmont; " Stute said. "It might end him for the rest of the year."
And if the horse isn't going to get much rest for a while, his trainer finally can relax after what were surely the most stressful weeks of his career. "The Derby was kind of hard on me," Stute said. "But tonight I don't have to make any excuses."