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Jim Murray

Psssst! Here Is a Tip on a Tale With a Big Payoff

July 10, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Disney would have loved it. What a great part for Loretta Young. What a script for Frank Capra. An Irving Berlin score.

It would have made the world forget "Bambi," "Son Of Flubber."

How's this for a picture, Hollywood? There's these two schoolteachers, see? And they love to go to the races. Ever since the father of one of them used to take her as a little girl.

They just love horses, is what they do. And they go around teaching the principal parts of the verb, to be, and the principal exports of Chile, just so they can go to the track and watch the horses run.

They daydream of owning one, but on a schoolmarm's salary you're lucky you can even bet on them. But they look longingly at all those cheap claiming races.

In those days, to claim a horse, first you had to own one. So, they pool their money and they buy this beat-up old plating horse, Aberwhirl, which gets them in position to put in a claim and start to build a stable.

They are no threat at all to Spendthrift Farms but they do manage to scrounge up enough to buy a few acres out in Hemet and they retire from their school districts and spend their days mucking out stalls, walking hots, hosing down yearlings and sitting up nights with sick colts or mares in fever. Loretta Young would do this without getting her hair mussed, but our two schoolteachers look more like Annie Oakley after a day under the sheds.

But Marianne Millard and Bea Rous love it. They are as happy doing what they are doing as a kid with a new bike on Christmas morning.

They don't dream of Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, they just want to draw in an overnight at Del Mar.

Women, of course, are superior shoppers (if Gloria Steinem will forgive me), and Marianne and Bea are no exceptions. And on one of their shopping sprees, Bea found herself a piece of merchandise at Golden Gate Fields called Melrose Nugget, a filly who was by Viking Spirit whom the teachers regarded as one of the superior sires in California. The price was right, $6,500.

If this were a movie, the railbirds would be shown laughing uproariously and telling the schoolmarms they got taken, that Melrose Nugget couldn't keep up with a plow. But Melrose Nugget won a mud race at Santa Anita by 12 lengths. She had some quality.

They bred her to a poor-but-honest stallion called Debonair Roger, and out of this came some pretty good runners.

The seventh foal of this union didn't look like much at all. She was kind of a spindly little filly, you couldn't hardly tell what color she was, kind of an off-gray, and she had so many spots on her, she looked tattooed. She wasn't ugly, exactly, just plain. As nondescript as a bridle-path rental. If she was human she'd have to settle for a blind date.

They named her Melair, combining portions of the dam's and sire's names, and they didn't send her to the races as a 2-year-old, preferring to let her fill out and develop.

They sent her down to Mexico to the trainer, Juan Garcia, a specialist in developing young horses. Garcia almost dropped his sombrero when he got a look at her. He didn't know whether to throw it in the air or check this filly for batteries.

It was not only that she was fast, it was that no one had ever seen a horse go that fast, that easily. You could have put a bowl of soup on her back and she would have come back without spilling a drop in 1:08 flat.

Melair, Garcia told the schoolteachers, was one of the fastest fillies he had ever seen.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, another California-bred was standing the race world on its ear. Snow Chief, a gutty little black horse with similarly undistinguished lineage was winning more money, faster, than any horse in history. He was also winning the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Preakness and Jersey Derby. A horse for the ages. A future statue in the paddock.

He was so famous, the track wrote a race--or rather re-wrote a race--this month just to keep him in California and out of the St. Paul Derby in Minnesota. They took a $200,000 race and doubled the purse on the condition that "the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont be a starter."

This amounted to an engraved invitation for Snow Chief and he accepted.

What nobody foresaw was that the conditions of the race looked attractive to the two schoolteachers and their mousy little filly who had been quietly popping eyes (and clocks) at Hollywood Park since her debut on April 25. She had won four races by margins as wide as 9 and 7 1/2 lengths.

No one expected her to challenge Snow Chief and a field of colts that included one other Kentucky Derby entrant.

They thought she would go in the filly race, the Hollywood Oaks, the next day. After all, Snow Chief had run 16 times in his career against the best 3-year-olds the country had to offer. The distance was a mile. Melair had run that only once. Snow Chief had run that far or more almost a dozen times.

It's not like asking Martina Navratilova to beat Boris Becker, Nancy Lopez to beat Raymond Floyd. Female horses have beaten male horses. But it's not the way to bet. In 112 runnings, only two fillies have ever won the Kentucky Derby.

But forget that. This is Hollywood. The little lady with the mousy hair went out and ran a race you only see in the last reel of an old Warner Bros. movie. Moving with stunning ease, she broke from the outside post position, easily put away the boys in four jumps, and won breezing by 6 1/2 widening lengths, just a tick off the track record. Snow Chief was a struggling third.

Ask yourself, is that a picture? Will that sell in Dubuque? Do they make movies like that anymore? I see it as a whole series. "Melair Goes Hawaiian." "Melair Meets Rambo." "Melair Takes New York." All it needs is a part for Mickey Rooney. And a dog. Rated PG at a theater near you soon.

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