HALLANDALE, Fla. — In the opinion of Gary Gregory, the black cat that has been hanging around Snow Chief's barn at Gulfstream Park the last couple of days doesn't qualify as a bad-luck black cat.
"He's got some white on one foot, so that makes him all right," Gregory said. "He better have that white, otherwise he wouldn't stand a chance with Mel around."
Gregory is an assistant trainer for Mel Stute, who was to arrive here from Los Angeles Wednesday night to supervise final preparations for Snow Chief's appearance in the $500,000 Florida Derby, the first of seven major races leading up to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs May 3.
With three straight stakes wins, Snow Chief will be favored Saturday against a large field of possibly 14 opponents.
"We didn't scare anybody off, did we?" Gregory said.
Although Snow Chief's three wins--in the Hollywood Futurity, the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita and the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows--have been impressive, he is still a California colt trying to win on a softer race track than he's seen on the West Coast.
Besides that, there is no standout among the 3-year-olds on the East Coast. The Florida preps for Saturday's Derby have been won by different horses. Strong Performance won the Tropical Park Derby at Calder. At Gulfstream, Papal Power won the Hutcheson, and Ensign Rhythm and My Prince Charming each won a division of the Fountain of Youth.
Papal Power, who had a warm-up problem and was injured in My Prince Charming's half of the Fountain of Youth, won't run Saturday. In fact, the strongest opposition for Snow Chief in the Florida Derby is expected to come from Mogambo and Glow, horses who haven't been stakes-tested as 3-year-olds.
Mogambo, winner of last year's Champagne at Belmont Park, but then sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Aqueduct in November, made his 3-year-old debut by winning an allowance race here Feb. 17. Glow, a son of Northern Dancer, was an 11 1/2-length winner at Gulfstream last Friday.
Both Mogambo and Glow are handled by trainers who know how to get horses ready for the Kentucky Derby. LeRoy Jolley, Mogambo's trainer, won the Derby with Foolish Pleasure in 1975 and Genuine Risk, a filly, in 1980. Glow's conditioner, Woody Stephens, had Derby wins with Cannonade in 1974 and Swale in 1984.
The only time Stute took a horse to the Kentucky Derby, Bold 'n Rulling went lame and finished sixth in 1980.
Bold 'n Rulling was a 68-1 longshot. "There'll be a lot more pressure if we get there this time," said Gregory, who has worked for Stute for seven years.
So far, Snow Chief seems impervious to pressure. He handled his first plane trip with aplomb, arriving here Monday afternoon from California with several other horses, among them trainer Wayne Lukas' Badger Land and Family Style. Badger Land, second to Snow Chief by 2 1/2 lengths in the El Camino Real Derby, is also scheduled to run Saturday.
"The Lukas horses were jumping all over the place when they got off the plane, but Snow Chief got off like it was just another van ride," Gregory said.
"The only difference between flying and vanning is that the horse sees the airport, so that was something new for this horse. But otherwise it took about the same time to fly--six or seven hours--that it takes to van him from Santa Anita to Bay Meadows."
One of the best 3-year-olds in the country will probably be running here later in the season, but Meadowlake won't make the Florida Derby.
Meadowlake won his only two races by 30 3/4 lengths as a 2-year-old, then suffered shin injuries that forced him out of training.
Tasso, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, has become a forgotten horse this year. Unraced since he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes at Aqueduct last Nov. 2, Tasso slipped further into the background when his trainer, Neil Drysdale, moved his entire barn of 26 horses from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park a few weeks ago.
Tasso worked six furlongs Wednesday at Hollywood, the clocker catching him in 1:14 3/5.
"He's right on schedule," Drysdale said. "You have to remember that he had a long campaign last year and should need only two or three races to be ready for the Kentucky Derby."
Drysdale estimates that Tasso's first race might be in late March. The Santa Anita Derby on April 6 is not on the schedule, but the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park April 19 and several April races at Keeneland might be.
Drysdale wouldn't say that a dissatisfaction with Santa Anita's racing surface was a reason for shifting to Hollywood, although at least one Santa Anita official indicated that the trainer was unhappy with the Arcadia track's conditions.
"There weren't many races for my horses to run in at Santa Anita, that's why I'm at Hollywood," Drysdale said. "Tasso won't run in the Santa Anita Derby because it doesn't fit with the horse's schedule."
Racing Notes Snow Chief got his three straight stakes wins after trainer Mel Stute had put blinkers on the horse. Blinkers are being credited with the improvement of two other 3-year-olds running in the Florida Derby--Glow and Strong Performance. Glow wore a hood for the first time in his last win and Strong Performance will wear blinkers Saturday because he's worked well recently while wearing them. . . . Julio Pezua, serving a 10-day suspension, will be replaced by Jacinto Vasquez aboard Ensign Rhythm in the Florida Derby. . . . This year's first edition of The Times' Triple Crown Ratings will appear next Tuesday. . . . The field is holding at 13 for Sunday's Santa Anita Handicap, with Precisionist, Vanlandingham, Gate Dancer, Greinton, Alphabatim, Dahar, Hatim, Right Con, Fast Account, Proof, Roo Art, My Habitony and Schiller scheduled to run.