Snow Chief continued to gain ground on the idle Tasso as the West Coast's best Kentucky Derby candidate Sunday, not because of whom he beat but because of the weight he carried and the way he did it.
With 126 pounds--Derby weight--on his back, Snow Chief won the $115,800 California Breeders' Stakes by four lengths over Variety Road to become the youngest 3-year-old and only the sixth California-bred to earn $1 million.
Snow Chief's sixth win in 10 starts was worth $70,800 and pushed his career purses to $1,006,540. Last year, Chief's Crown became racing's earliest 3-year-old millionaire, but he didn't do it until March 30 with a win in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah.
Most of the horses behind Snow Chief in Sunday's seven-furlong exercise won't be in the Derby. The other seven included four that had run for claiming prices, one as low as $16,000, and three that had wins only in maiden races. Dancing Pirate, the only other stakes winner in the field besides Snow Chief, finished seventh.
Still, Snow Chief was clocked in 1:21 3/5, only four-fifths of a second slower than what Phone Trick, the undefeated 4-year-old sprinter, did in winning the San Carlos Handicap on Saturday.
"He (Snow Chief) is the best I've ever ridden," said Alex Solis, who won the 1983 Flamingo with Current Hope. "He's a champion. He knows what to do and he knows how to win. He carried the weight and won easy and he should like more distance. I had to get the pony boy to help me pull him up after we got past the wire today."
The notarized champion, Tasso, who won the Eclipse Award as best 2-year-old colt in 1985, quietly went about his business Sunday morning at Santa Anita, breezing three furlongs in his first serious appearance on the track since he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes at Aqueduct in November.
Neil Drysdale, who trains Tasso, said he might not run him until March and may have only two or three races going into the Kentucky Derby on May 3. "With the Breeders' Cup in November every year, it's a longer season than it used to be," Drysdale said. "You'd like to have a lot of horse left when the Triple Crown races are over."
The only time Snow Chief and Tasso met, in the Del Mar Futurity last September, Tasso won by 2 1/2 lengths, with Snow Chief finishing third. Mel Stute, Snow Chief's trainer, said that his colt was at a disadvantage because it was his first race around two turns.
"I don't know," Drysdale said Sunday. "We still beat him by quite a bit, didn't we?"
There's a possibility that the two California colts might meet out of town before the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6, since both trainers have mentioned the Florida Derby. Stute said that he and his owners, Carl Grinstead of Chula Vista and Ben Rochelle of Beverly Hills, have their eyes on the highest paying races, such as the Arkansas Derby with its $1-million bonus for sweeping another race at Oaklawn Park along with the Kentucky Derby. Ideally, Stute would like to run Snow Chief once a month between now and the Kentucky Derby.
"I feel differently than some trainers," Stute said. "I would rather race a horse who's fit instead of all this freshening stuff."
Before Sunday's race, Stute was concerned that he might have a colt who was too fit. On Jan. 3, Snow Chief worked six furlongs in a blistering 1:09 3/5.
"He damn near ran over two other horses that day," Stute said.
Running Snow Chief for a half-mile three days ago, Stute took off the colt's blinkers, those famed pink blinkers that had just been added and were generally credited for his 6 1/2-length win in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 15.
"That was one of the reasons I hadn't put blinkers on him before the Futurity," Stute said. "I was afraid that they might make him run too quickly too soon."
The blinkers were back on for Sunday's race, but any temptation Snow Chief had to fly out of the gate was negated when he broke on the wrong lead (the left foot).
"He's done that a couple of times before," Solis said. "But the two races before this one, he had no problem."
Going into the turn, Time To Smoke, Air Pirate and Dancing Pirate were up front, with Snow Chief in fifth. Solis was able to move between horses midway through the turn--in the process crowding Variety Road into the rail--and then swung wide heading for home, while under no pressure from his rider.
Heavily favored Snow Chief paid $2.80, $2.60 and $2.20. Variety Road returned $3.40 and $3 for finishing a neck ahead of Air Pirate, whose show price was $3.80.
"The weight was a lot for this young horse to carry," Stute said. "It was five more pounds than in the Futurity, but he's a good horse and he can handle it."