LOS ANGELES — Mel Stute, who trained Snow Chief to victory in the 1986 Preakness and the Eclipse Award as the nation’s best 3-year-old male, died Wednesday. He was 93.
He died at a rental home near Del Mar racetrack north of San Diego, where his son, Gary, is training at the summer meet. Gary Stute said his father had been bedridden since falling and injuring his knee last month. The family had gathered to mark his birthday four days ago.
Stute won 2,000 races in a career that began in the late 1940s and ended when he retired in 2011. He had career purse earnings of $55,653,244, according to Equibase, a racing database.
His peak came in the mid-’80s when California-bred Snow Chief won the 1986 Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby. The colt finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby, but two weeks later won the Preakness under Alex Solis by four lengths over Derby winner Ferdinand, who was ridden by Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker.
Stute’s run of success continued with fillies Brave Raj and Very Subtle. Brave Raj won the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita and earned an Eclipse Award as the nation’s best 2-year-old filly. Very Subtle beat male horses to win the 1987 BC Sprint at Hollywood Park.
Another of Stute’s top horses was Telly’s Pop. After breeding him, Stute sold him for $6,000 as a yearling to movie mogul Howard W. Koch and actor Telly Savalas, who named him for his father. Telly’s Pop won four stakes as a 2-year-old in 1975. He was regarded as a Kentucky Derby hopeful, but finished fifth as the favorite in the 1976 Santa Anita Derby and didn’t win again before being retired the following year.
Stute’s training expertise was shown best with inexpensive horses. He typically sought out horses that cost $25,000 to $30,000 and then tried to break even on them. Very Subtle cost $30,000 and she retired with career earnings of $1,608,360.
Gary Stute recalled that the most his father ever spent on a horse was $300,000 for Brave Raj, and that was the exception.
“For a guy that never spent much money on horses, he won an unbelievable amount of stakes for ordinary people,” Gary Stute said by phone. “He just had the greatest eye of anyone I had ever seen. My uncle Warren didn’t like to go to sales, so my dad picked out quite a few of his good horses, too.”
Born Melvin Frederick Stute on Aug. 8, 1927, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Stute’s family moved to Southern California in 1934, the same year Santa Anita opened. Mel and brother Warren began working on the backstretch, with Mel’s first job as a groom. He saddled his first winner, Egg Nog, in 1947 at Portland Meadows.
Warren Stute was a longtime trainer who gave Shoemaker a leg up in the jockey’s first $100,000 stakes win. Warren died on Aug. 9, 2007, at age 85 – a day after his brother’s birthday.
“He waited until the next day to die because he said he didn’t want to ruin Mel’s birthday,” Gary Stute said.
During his career, Stute was a fixture at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner, where owners, trainers and jockeys gather to eat and talk during morning workouts. He spun stories about his best horses over the years and recalled some of his successful wagers. Gary Stute said his father hit a winning Pick 6 ticket at Saratoga a few days before he died.
“He loved going to the races, drinking and gambling, going to dinner with the owners,” Gary Stute said.
Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Annabelle, daughters Jana and Gail, and six grandchildren. Stute and his wife would have been married 70 years on Aug. 21.