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Odd Supporting Cast Surrounds Snow Chief

April 06, 1986|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

A superstitious trainer who'll do anything to get out of the way of a black cat.

A normally mild-mannered jockey who almost climbed into the stands recently to get to a heckler.

A retired song-and-dance man who says he's having the most fun he has had since vaudeville.

A long-struggling horseman who appreciates the importance of the bottom line.

The wife of the long-struggling horseman, who feeds their horse carrots and thrives on collecting the horse's newspaper clippings .

This is the Snow Chief crowd, which is likely to draw a crowd if the 3-year-old colt survives the last hurdle, today's $500,000 Santa Anita Derby, and heads on to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby May 3.

At the Kentucky Derby in recent years, there have been the Seattle Slew crew, the Spectacular Bid troupe and the Spend a Buck bunch, but none can match the variety of the Snow Chief crowd.

The horse's supporting cast looks like this:

RHYMES WITH DUTY

One morning recently, Mel Stute was making his way from barn 97 at Santa Anita out to the track. Along the way, he spotted a black cat in the distance.

Anybody superstitious, as Stute is, must have black cats high on his list of avoidances. But this cat seemed determined to cross Stute's path. Stute was equally determined to avoid her.

"I must have looked like a fool," Stute said later. "I was backpedaling and going sideways so fast that I went through (trainer) Jerry Fanning's manure pile. But at least I missed the cat."

Gary Gregory, Stute's assistant trainer, picked up the story, dead serious.

"That was (Sandy) Shulman's cat," Gregory solemnly said, indicting another trainer.

"Was it?" Stute said.

Later, Shulman confessed. "Her name's Christina," he said. "And I got another one, her twin, at home. Her name's Madeline."

Stute must have steered clear of black cats all last year, because his barn earned close to $3 million, the best the 58-year-old trainer has done since he took out his first license in 1947.

Stute has tasted Kentucky Derby fever before, having almost gone to Louisville with Telly's Pop in 1976, and he actually started Bold 'n Rulling at Churchill Downs in 1980. Telly's Pop, owned by Telly Savalas and Howard W. Koch, suffered knee problems after winning the California Derby. Bold 'n Rulling, after leading the Derby for three-fourths of a mile, broke down and never raced again.

"We may need an entire airplane if we go this year," Stute said. "I've got about 15 owners and we're a tightly knit bunch and everybody wants to go. It should be some party."

THE PANAMANIAN CONNECTION

A leading rider on the Miami, Fla., circuit, Alex Solis moved to California last summer. For a jockey who won his first race as recently as 1981 in his native Panama City, Solis has made a quick transition in the United States.

In 1983, Solis won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah with Current Hope, but early on he was saying that Snow Chief was better--the best horse he had ever ridden.

Last year, the Daily Racing Form credited Solis with 177 winners and $3.8 million in purses.

Solis, who turned 22 last month, has made the most of the opportunity since be rode Snow Chief for the first time, as Stute's third choice, in the Del Mar Futurity last September.

Rafael Meza rode Snow Chief his first three races, winning twice, and Stute wanted to stay with the same rider at Del Mar.

"Meza's agent came to me and said that the Bolger Magic people wouldn't let him off their horse in the Futurity," Stute said. "Then I wanted Pat Valenzuela, but he preferred to ride Wayne Lukas' filly (Arewehavingfunyet) in the race. So that's how I came to get Alex."

Snow Chief, running around two turns for the first time, finished third at Del Mar, behind Tasso and Arewehavingfunyet, but Solis kept the mount and since then he and the colt have won six and finished second twice in eight starts. Solis also rides Sari's Heroine, a 3-year-old filly trained by Stute, who won the Sorority Stakes Friday at Golden Gate Fields.

The smartest thing Stute has done in the career of Snow Chief was done at Solis' urging. Blinkers were put on the horse after his second-place finish in the Hoist the Flag Stakes at Hollywood Park last November and he's won four straight since then.

"He was racing green, and I thought the blinkers would help," Solis said.

Stute resisted the equipment change until after Snow Chief lost a race. It's a lot like avoiding black cats.

A NEW TEAM

During a 25-year career in show business, Ben Rochelle performed with his wife, Jane. They were known as Rochelle and Beebe, which was Jane's maiden name.

Now it's Grinstead and Rochelle, Ben having bought into Carl Grinstead's horse operation in mid-1984.

Rochelle, who had known Grinstead from race-track chats in Mel Stute's box, wanted to buy an interest in Sari's Dreamer, even though she had won only 1 of 23 starts.

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