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Bill Dwyre

A Stute Take on Racing History

July 08, 2006|Bill Dwyre | Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

God was very young when she created the Stute brothers.

Warren is 84, Mel is 78 and they have been training horses in Southern California since Seabiscuit was a big story.

With the Stute brothers, Hollywood has another version of Walter Matthau and George Burns, and Neil Simon didn't have to concoct them. Warren and Mel are racing's Sunshine Boys, minus the bickering. Well, minus most of it.

"We've never trained together," says Mel, "but if we did, then you'd have some fights."

Today at Hollywood Park, during the program that includes the track's marquee race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, in which Lava Man will attempt to become Super Man, the Stute brothers will receive the third annual Laffit Pincay Jr. Award. It will be presented by its namesake, the Hall of Fame jockey, and honors those who have "served the sport with integrity, extraordinary dedication, determination and distinction."

"Helps to be older than hell too," Mel says. "I told [Bob] Baffert the other day he had a long wait."

This award recognizes much more than longevity, though. Each of the Stutes has saddled two Kentucky Derby starters, and Mel's Snow Chief won the 1986 Preakness after disappointing in the Derby. He also took Bold 'N Ruling to the Derby in 1980.

Warren separated his Derby appearances by 38 years, taking Field Master in 1967 and then Greeley's Galaxy last year.

Warren also won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1969, with Figonaro, that horse's third victory in 15 days. Six weeks later at Del Mar, Figonaro set a world record.

The days of wine and roses may be mostly past for the Stutes -- Mel has 14 horses in his stable, Warren nine -- but neither is contemplating retirement.

"We've got a couple of friends, horse trainers, and they went off, retired and bought houses on a golf course," Warren says. "They were dead in two years."

This coming from a man who has suffered a series of strokes, after one of which he waited to go to the hospital until he'd had a victory drink with a winning owner.

"I had to stop galloping my horses when I turned 81," he says. "Made my wife happy, but not me."

The strokes did not, however, mean that Warren actually stopped riding. He still climbs on a pony and rides along every morning as he oversees his operation.

"I would guess," Mel says, "that he has galloped more horses than any other person in the world. I remember one day years ago, when they were paying $1 a gallop, he did 28."

Each Stute has enhanced racing lore in his own way.

Warren fired an owner in the victory circle of the 1952 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park because the owner was telling him how to train.

"We're standing there and the guy tells me, 'Well, we did it,' " Warren says. "I said, 'No more we,' and told him to have his horse out of my barn by noon the next day."

Three years ago, just after he'd had one of his strokes, Warren was in a doughnut shop when a fan, apparently unhappy with a race result involving one of Warren's horses, approached.

"Called me all sorts of dirty names," Warren says. "I told him I just had a stroke, and he said, 'Too bad you didn't die.' So I hit him."

Among the owners Mel has worked with have been movie stars Telly Savalas and, fittingly, Matthau.

With Savalas, Mel had Telly's Pop, who would have made it to the Derby had he not been injured.

"Every day with Telly, it was showtime," Mel says. "You're in the Turf Club and people are trying to crawl over the glass to get to him. In the winner's circle, there were always 150 people. They ran out of room."

He says Matthau always told him he needed to make $3 million a year -- "$1 million for the government, $1 million for my ex-wife and $1 million for gambling."

He tells of the day they were at Bay Meadows with one of their horses and Matthau won a big daily double, probably thousands.

"By the end of the day, it was all gone," Mel says. "I drive him to the airport, he gets out and says he has no money. In those days, flights on PSA," the old Pacific Southwest Airlines, "were about $9.95. I say I have $40 and I can give him $20. He says, 'Can I have the whole $40? I've got to get my car out of the parking garage.' "

The Stutes came from Indiana in the '30s when their father became a dairy farmer in California. The brothers have remained close.

"One of my best memories is when I was 12, and thought I was a pretty good ballplayer," Mel says. "I had a beat-up old glove. My brother was working at Caliente," Agua Caliente, the old track in Tijuana, "and he bought me a brand-new glove. It was the best thing I'd ever seen."

The Stute brothers have sons working as horse trainers now. Mel's son, Gary, and Warren's son, Glen, have recently joined their fathers as race winners at Santa Anita, a rare family achievement.

Matter of fact, if Gary and Glen keep finding success, they could achieve special notoriety: Sons of the Sunshine Boys.

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