Mel Stute's tribute to the late champion Snow Chief took place at his Southern California home on Wednesday, five days after the horse died of an apparent heart attack at Eagle Oak Ranch in Paso Robles, Calif.
Stute dug out a box of videotapes of Snow Chief's three-year career and relived the memories. "He was a gutty little horse," Stute said.
And, he was so much more. Snow Chief was a classic winner, a multi-millionaire, a blue-collar feel-good story, and a fan favorite.
In 24 starts, he won 13 races throughout the United States, and earned $3,383,210. Along the way, he earned the respect of racing fans everywhere for his courageous style of racing. He won the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby in consecutive starts in 1986, finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby, but rebounded to win the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.
Perhaps his best performance came the following February, when Snow Chief outgamed 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand to win a memorable Charles H. Strub Stakes by a nose. About the only things Snow Chief did not accomplish was winning the Kentucky Derby or becoming a successful stud.
"I couldn't believe he wasn't a sire because everything that he did, he did sensationally," Stute said.
Still, Snow Chief remained a popular draw for racing fans, getting a warm reception when he was paraded at Hollywood Park before the 2007 Snow Chief Stakes.
"He looked like they should run him," Stute said.
Snow Chief was the champion 3-year-old male of 1986, but the form that led to that title started late in his 2-year-old season. In the final months of 1985, Snow Chief won the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes in October, and the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in December. The Futurity was the first of a five-race winning streak that led to him going off as the 2-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby.
Through early 1986, Snow Chief had won the California Breeders' Champion Stakes for statebreds, the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at now defunct Bay Meadows, the Grade 1 Florida Derby, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
"He was the only horse, I think, that ever won the Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby," Stute said.
His memory is correct. Not many horses are tried in both races, considering the distance between tracks and the looming Kentucky Derby as a focus for horsemen.
In the Kentucky Derby, Snow Chief was within a length of the lead on the turn, but faded to finish 19 1/2 lengths behind Ferdinand, whom he had beaten in the Santa Anita Derby.
"He tried every time he ran except the Kentucky Derby, and I don't know what happened then," Stute said.
Stute's faith in the colt did not waver. He brought him back in the Preakness and turned the tables on Ferdinand. Snow Chief won by four lengths, and he was not done in the month of May. Just nine days later, Snow Chief won the $1 million Jersey Derby at Garden State Park over Mogambo.
"He won something like $1 million in May and he didn't win the Derby," Stute said.
Racing for Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle, Snow Chief made six starts at 4. In the Strub. Snow Chief just refused to quit or be passed. He later won the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and was third in the final start of his career, the Grade 1 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park in June. Snow Chief was later diagnosed with a tendon injury.
At stud, he sired the Grade 2 stakes winner College Town and had progeny earnings of more than $5.6 million. But he will not be remembered for that. The tough racehorse that was Snow Chief still fills the mind.