At the grand old age of 86, Mel Stute still has a goodly number of lucid brain cells, especially when it comes to his favorite subject, 1986 Eclipse Award winner Snow Chief.

The retired trainer, who conditioned the California-bred son of Reflected Glory to win the 1986 Preakness Stakes after finishing 11th as the 2-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, credits the immortal Charlie Whittingham for giving him the impetus to run in the second leg of the Triple Crown after his huge disappointment in the Run for the Roses.

“Getting Snow Chief beat in the Derby was my fault,” Stute confessed from his favorite chair at Clockers’ Corner, where he holds court every racing day. “He ran so bad (beaten 19 ½ lengths by Ferdinand), I couldn’t believe it. I had beaten Ferdinand seven lengths in the Santa Anita Derby.

“The morning after the Kentucky Derby, I had my horse’s legs done up in mud, but I had to leave the barn. I wanted the groom to have his legs washed off so a neurosurgeon could look at them, but when I got back to the barn, the groom wasn’t up yet. Now I’ve got this veterinarian trying to hold Snow Chief, and he’s trying to bite his hands.

“The vet says to me, ‘Mel, these bleepin’ hands are worth a million dollars,’ when out of nowhere, a voice says, ‘Give me that SOB.’ It’s Charlie Whittingham.

“He snatched the horse a couple of times, the legs were washed off, I’m in the stall looking at Snow Chief and can’t find a thing wrong with him. Charlie says, ‘Mel, I gotta tell you something. If you want to run in the Preakness, go.’

“He said, ‘I ran a filly at Churchill that shipped in like your horse, two days before the race. She ran horrible. Some horses don’t get a hold of this track. You beat me seven lengths at Santa Anita, and I had Ferdinand in Kentucky almost three weeks. That’s why I beat you.’

“Anyway, Lynn Swann, who was working for ABC, comes by my barn after the Preakness. He tells me Charlie told him the story about how he was a sergeant in the Marines, ‘but if I was more intelligent, I’d have probably been an officer.

“’To show you how dumb I am, I told Mel Stute to run his horse in the Preakness. If I hadn’t, I don't think he would have, and I’d be going for the Triple Crown with Ferdinand.’”


Academy Award-winning Producer Jim Wilson’s latest film, the highly acclaimed “50 to 1,” which depicts the down-home Cinderella story of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, will make its California debut on Friday, May 23 in nearby Monrovia at Krikorian Premiere Theatre and at six other Krikorian venues in Southern California—in Buena Park, Downey, Pico Rivera, Redlands and Vista.

Wilson, who produced 1990’s Dances With Wolves, which starred Kevin Costner and took Best Picture honors and six other Academy Awards, is a long-time horse owner and passionate lover of horses and Thoroughbred racing. He participated in a question and answer session regarding the film, its rollout and reactions that it has created, two weeks in advance of its Southern California debut.

Q.) We’ve heard good things about 50 to 1 and its depiction of a small group of New Mexico horsemen en route to the win of a lifetime. How long do you anticipate the film running locally?

“It’s all according to supply and demand. As long as people go, it will continue to run. Typically, theatres now will show a film for a week or two or longer, depending on how many people are coming. I’m in a theatre in New Mexico now where we beat Spider Man and we’re in our eighth week. You just never know.”

Q.) George Krikorian is very involved in the Thoroughbred business as an owner/breeder and he now sits on the California Horse Racing Board. Has he seen the film?

“I invited George to a screening, I would say five months ago . . . He said, ‘When you get ready to release it in California, give me a call.’ So, obviously both of us being horse owners, I said ‘You betcha.’ So when we finished our seven-state tour, I called George and he said, ‘Let’s put it up there.’

Q.) This state-by-state rollout is kind of an unorthodox approach with a new film. What’s been your thinking on this?

“It’s really unorthodox. Part of it is I don’t have the money. I don’t have the funds of a giant studio that can put up 30 or 40 million dollars and gamble and see how we’re going to do. So part of it is financially driven in that we’re able to go state by state and as you do one state, you sort of take those proceeds and go on to the next. It’s kind of a throwback to the 70s and 80s when there were a lot of grassroots (movie) campaigns and it worked . . .The first idea was to go from New Mexico (where Mine That Bird was based) and weave our way up through seven states to Kentucky, which we did on tour.

“We were on a bus for nearly six weeks . . . It’s just that love and attention that I find really pays dividends . . . It may sound silly, but Mine That Bird was 30 lengths behind (in the 2009 Kentucky Derby) and he took his time. This kind of film is going to need a rollout. It’s a word-of-mouth film . . . If you go on Tomato Meters or IMVB, people are loving this film . . . ”

Q.) How would you compare your movie to recent films such as Secretariat and Seabiscuit?

“It’s a bit of a romp. It’s much more comedic than either Secretariat or Seabiscuit, because the characters were just that and the horse was a bit of a character, too.”

Q.) As you know, so many people say that our game is dying due to a variety of factors. Why do you continue to have a passion for it and continue to lay your own money down trying to promote it?

“Look, when you love a sport like I do this, like none other, that doesn’t go away. The economics could go to the absolute bottom and I will always love a man and a horse in unison racing around a track. That in and of itself will never be taken from me, or a lot of people. That’s just not going to leave them, it’s just such a phenomenal sport . . . One can point a lot of fingers.

“I actually think the product works very well. I think racing is attractive in terms of what it has to offer. We can always market wiser and better and there are new audiences to approach. I think 50 to 1 is just a little kernel of that. No one movie is going to turn the whole thing around but I do know that as I play this film around the country, I’ve run into a lot of people who (for various reasons) have been driven from the theatres but they’ve come back to this movie and they’ve said ‘I haven’t seen a film in 20 years and you’ve brought me back and I greatly appreciate it.’ They give me a big hug and I know that we are introducing this sport to a lot of people who don’t know a darn thing about racing.”

Q.) By your own admission, the film is devoid of “A List” actors, but we’re told the acting is outstanding. HRTV’s Laffit Pincay is shown in the movie trailer interviewing trainer Chip Woolley during the pre-Derby walk-over and it appears very realistic. That said, it’s no secret that Bob Baffert is less than pleased with the way he has been depicted.

“I don’t know if Bob’s seen the film . . . Historically, you have to go with Bob as the competitor to these guys (Mine That Bird’s connections). Because he was that person. In the Breeders’ Cup in 2008 in the Juvenile, he won with Midshipman. He is the face of racing. There is no better, if you want to call it villain or competitor than this guy. He historically is the guy that took on Mine That Bird at Santa Anita in the (2008) Breeders’ Cup.

“Midshipman was owned by the Sheik, and these guys (Mine That Bird’s connections) finished dead last. And, you know, Bob is there pumping his fist and doing what Bob does. I’ve known Bob for 25 years and I know how Bob can be. I’m hugely respectful of him as a trainer and all of that. I love Bob. I like to watch Bob and see what Bob does, but he had Pioneerof the Nile in the following Derby (2009). He is the guy historically, to follow. If you are somebody who’s going to take on the industry, Bob is the one you want to beat. He’s the one that I want to beat when I go to the track. He’s hard to beat . . . With that shock of white hair and his swagger and all of that . . . “

Q. We understand Baffert took time to meet with the actor (Bruce Wayne Eckelman) who portrayed him in advance of the movie being filmed.

“Bob was nice enough to meet with Bruce at Del Mar. He drove down to Del Mar and Bob took him to the backside and showed him around the barn. Bob couldn’t have been nicer. We can make a big brouhaha about it . . . I think Bob should just see it (the film) . . . To say that we painted Baffert as someone who is occasionally arrogant? Yeah. Am I occasionally arrogant? I can be.”

For the rest of the story, Southern California racing fans will have to wait until “50 to 1” comes to town.


Next Saturday’s Grade III American Stakes has all the makings of a Grade I, with at least two Grade I winners expected for the one mile grass race in Frank E. Kilroe Mile winner Winning Prize and Shoemaker Mile winner Obviously.

Both horses worked on Santa Anita’s firm turf course Saturday, Winning Prize going six furlongs in company in 1:14 for Neil Drysdale, and Obviously going five furlongs under Joe Talamo in a bullet 58 flat for Phil D’Amato.

Winning Prize has the highest Beyer Figure (105) on turf at all distances through Thursday. Corey Nakatani, who was aboard for the front-running Kilroe win on March 8, will be back aboard.

Talamo, Santa Anita’s Spring Meet riding leader through nine days with 12 wins, pilots Obviously for the 13th straight time in the American. The 6-year-old Irish-bred gelding will be making his first start since last Nov. 2, when he finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but shows eight bullet drills among his most recent workouts.

Also expected in the American Stakes is Grade II winner Silentio, who missed winning the 2013 Kilroe by a nose under Rafael Bejarano, who retains the mount for trainer Gary Mandella.

American Stakes nominee Jeranimo, yet another Grade I winner (the Eddie Read last July at Del Mar) worked five furlongs on turf for Mike Pender in 1:04.20, but the trainer said a prep for defense of his title in this year’s Eddie Read “is yet to be determined.”

FINISH LINES: Former claimer Big Macher, developed into a two-time stakes-winning sprinter by trainer Richard Baltas, was vanned off following a five furlong workout in 59.80 Saturday morning, but Baltas said the California-bred son of Beau Genius was not in a life-threatening situation. “He was a little off in his right front foot, but we pulled the shoe off, treated him, and he’s resting comfortably in his stall,” Baltas said . . . In the Whatever Happened To department, while he hasn’t raced since Sept. 27 of last year or had a recorded breeze since last Oct. 27, multiple graded stakes winner Caracortado is still alive and kicking. The 7-year-old California-bred son of Cat Dreams could return to the races this summer at Del Mar, where he won the Grade II Del Mar Mile in 2011. “He’s galloping every day now,” said trainer Mike Machowsky, who has nurtured a nagging foot problem the chestnut gelding has endured for more than two years. “I’ll probably run him five-eighths on the grass at Del Mar. The foot grew out really well and he’ll make it back.” . . . La Canada Stakes winner Spellbound worked seven furlongs for Richard Mandella Saturday in 1:28 as she prepares for next Sunday’s Grade III, $100,000 Adoration Stakes for fillies and mares, three years old and up, at 1 1/16 miles. Victor Espinoza rides the 4-year-old daughter of Bernardini for the ninth consecutive race.