Matched against a field filled with upset intentions, Snow Chief left six other 3-year-olds as though they were running in foot-high snowdrifts Sunday to win the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby by six lengths in front of 54,011 fans.
Although Garden State Park representatives were skulking about, hoping to lure Snow Chief to one of their races in two weeks, Mel Stute, Snow Chief's trainer, indicated after the race that the intrepid California-bred's next start would be in the Kentucky Derby on May 3. Stute has been running Snow Chief on a race-a-month schedule since he won the Hollywood Futurity in December.
Snow Chief will likely go off an odds-on choice at Churchill Downs, especially after the dispatch with which he handled Sunday's opponents. It was the ninth career victory and eighth stakes win in 13 starts for Snow Chief, who extended his winning streak to five races.
"We're looking at a great horse," said Bruce Headley, whose Variety Road had been given an outside chance Sunday but finished sixth. "He's a super horse. We're not going to Kentucky. We're going to stay in California."
Other trainers around the country are echoing Headley's sentiments, although at least two of the horses that ran Sunday--runner-up Icy Groom and third-place finisher Ferdinand--may still be Kentucky-bound.
Snow Chief pulled jockey Alex Solis from second place to the lead about halfway down the backside, passing Big Play as though he were a statue, and then it was just a question of notarizing the colt's victory when he hit the finish line.
Slow early fractions--maidens ran faster in the race after the Santa Anita Derby--made Snow Chief's run even easier, and just in case, Solis whacked him five times--two of them real stingers--through the stretch. On the turn, Solis, as is his style, had peeked under an armpit to see if anybody was charging and there wasn't anyone applying the pressure.
Snow Chief ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 3/5 on a fast but rain-dampened track, not close to the record of 1:47 that is shared by Lucky Debonair and Sham, and earned $275,000 for his owners, Carl Grinstead of Chula Vista and Ben Rochelle of Beverly Hills, whose total bankroll with the colt now exceeds $1.7 million.
Sent off at 3-10 odds, which made him the lowest-priced winner since Affirmed won the stake as a prelude to the Triple Crown sweep in 1978, Snow Chief paid $2.60, $2.60 and $2.20. Icy Groom returned $5 and $3.20, finishing a length ahead of Ferdinand, whose show price was $3. It was another three-fourths of a length back to Big Play in fourth.
Solis, the 22-year-old Panamanian whose only previous Kentucky Derby ride resulted in an 11th-place finish aboard Current Hope, an 18-1 shot in 1983, is relishing his prospects this time. Sheila Solis, the daughter of trainer Bert Sonnier, whom the jockey met in the paddock at a Florida track the year before they were married, has her bags packed, even though she is four months pregnant with their second child.
"What this horse has done is a miracle," Alex Solis said. "I just keep praying that nothing happens to him. He has no weaknesses--he can come from behind, he can run on the lead, he can run anywhere you put him."
On the first turn Sunday, Snow Chief was already saying to Solis, "Let me go." At the half-mile pole, the jockey was able to get his horse to settle down some.
"Down the backside he heard one of the other jocks whipping his horse, and that was his signal to pick up the bit again," Solis said. "He finished with a bigger kick today than he did the Florida Derby (Snow Chief's previous start on March 1). I think that the fact that the track at Gulfstream Park was playing slow had something to do with that."
Trainer Eddie Gregson, winner of the 1982 Kentucky Derby with Gato Del Sol, plans to send Icy Groom to Keeneland to run in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 24.
"It's no disgrace to get beat by Snow Chief and we beat some decent horses that finished behind us," Gregson said. "I don't think anybody really thought that they could beat Snow Chief today. He's the measure by which you decide whether you've got a Kentucky Derby horse."
The 72-year-old Charlie Whittingham, who hasn't saddled a Kentucky Derby starter since 1960, still gives Ferdinand a chance to go to Louisville.
"A 50-50 chance?" Whittingham said. "I think it's better than that. After all, the horse is still breathing. It might have looked like he had some late run today, but I didn't think he'd catch Snow Chief, because he was not grabbing the track like he should. The track was greasy, kind of slippery, and he doesn't take to any kind of off-track at all."
Although it appeared that Snow's Chief's latest win was easier than his 1 3/4-length win over Badger Land in the Florida Derby, Stute wasn't saying so.