Coming off the final turn in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, jockey Craig Perret knew the fire was going out under him. As the quarter pole flashed by and he straightened out for home, Perret felt his mount, Groovy, begin to weaken.
The chestnut colt, one of the fastest 3-year-olds in America, had raced to the lead at the drop of the flag, relaxed through a modest half mile in 47[2/5] seconds, then hung on tenaciously when Snow Chief pounced on him at the far turn and stretched his neck like a bowstring on the last bend for home. As Groovy finally yielded, jockey Alex Solis, riding Snow Chief, drove his little black colt to the lead in the upper stretch, opening daylight. At that fair moment at Pimlico Race Course, all that Perret, perfect gentleman that he is, could think to do was bid Solis farewell.
"You're on your own, Alex!" Perret yelled to him above the crowd's din. "You got it!"
Solis and Snow Chief got it all, of course, on their very own. The colt had opened up four quick lengths by the time he swept past the eighth pole, and through the final 220 yards he stuck out his nose, dug in his toes and easily held off the late charge of jockey Bill Shoemaker and his Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand. Thus was dashed the 54-year-old Shoemaker's dream of winning his first Triple Crown. In the gloaming of his legendary career, the Shoe's most romantic quest ended in a Preakness Stakes that was as decisive as any run in years. Snow Chief won by four lengths and raced the 1[3/16] miles in 1:54⅘ extremely fast time over a dull racing surface.
May 25, 1986
It was a superb, emphatic performance, and what made it the more stunning was that it was pulled off by a colt so humiliated and discredited in the Kentucky Derby that a number of knowledgeable observers gave him little chance to win the Preakness at all. More than a few thought he would not even hit the board. Snow Chief was the 2-1 favorite in the Derby, coming off spirited victories in the Florida and Santa Anita derbies, but he ran as if all the months of training and racing had dulled his edge and worn him down. After staying perilously close to the sizzling early pace—Groovy blazed the opening half mile in 45[1/5] seconds, equaling the fastest in Derby history—Snow Chief was sucking air at the top of the final lane. He collapsed through the stretch and finished 11th, beaten by 19½ lengths.
Which made the Preakness a venue of sweet vindication not only for Snow Chief but also for his trainer, Mel Stute, and his owners, Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle. After the Derby, as Stute and his owners were being urged to send the colt west to California to give him a lengthy breather, they shipped him east to Pimlico instead. It seemed a classic case of racehorse mismanagement. Apparently, having gone to the well once too often, they decided to go back again, as if to see how dry it really was.
Stute had been truly baffled by the colt's performance at Churchill Downs. "I have to throw the Derby completely out," he said. "I go back to any other of his races before the Derby, the last five or six races that he won, and it makes me a winner [in the Preakness]. I've got to believe my horse didn't like the track at Churchill Downs. And that first half cooked him. There was nothing wrong with him after the Derby. I looked for bleeding [from the lungs]. I looked for other problems. I couldn't find anything."
What made Snow Chiefs Preakness prospects even more uncertain was his seven-furlong workout on May 11, in which he ran his last quarter in 25[3/5] seconds, slow for him and a seeming signal that he was still on the decline. Most professional handicappers were pointing toward Ferdinand, Badger Land and Broad Brush, leaving Snow Chief out of the equation altogether. In the Daily Racing Form's Preakness Stakes edition, not one of the Form's five chief handicappers picked Snow Chief to finish in the money.
That did not faze Stute, an enthusiastic bettor who figures that he loses at least half of his annual income playing the horses. Nor did the prevailing skepticism fool many in the record crowd of 87,652 fans at Pimlico, who made the entry of Badger Land and Clear Choice the 9-5 favorite and Snow Chief the second choice at 5-2. In the saddling area, Stute lifted Solis aboard Snow Chief, cautioned his rider not to let Groovy steal off to a long lead in waltz time and then told him, "Forget Groovy's in there. Get to the rail if you can. It's faster down there. Ride him like you own him."
That is exactly what Solis did. Perret snugged Groovy through that easy first half mile, but the little black horse was on the rail and racing right next to him, a half length away. Heading for the far turn, Solis hit the gas and Snow Chief ran up to the leader, eyeball to eyeball. Thirty seconds later, Perret was telling him goodby.
Heading for the victory celebration, Stute floated across the racetrack, beaming and euphoric. A reporter floating next to the trainer asked him what he had bet on his horse. "I'll show you," Stute said. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out $400 in win tickets on Snow Chief, now worth $1,440, and a $50 exacta ticket on Snow Chief over Ferdinand, worth $875. "That's the same exacta I had in the Derby," said Stute. "I had it again. I'm a better handicapper than you guys think."
Stute's play at the windows, however, was small potatoes compared with what he had gambled by bringing the colt to Pimlico after the debacle at the Downs.
The Derby had been the bitterest disappointment in the 58-year-old trainer's career, and it had left him seeking more than the colt's redemption. "I wanted revenge," he said the day before the race. He got it at Pimlico.
"God, this was good," he said. "Everything went just perfect today. I knew that wasn't his race in Kentucky. I knew he was a better horse than this. That's why, when we talked it over, we decided to come here."
While Stute was inclined to pass up the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes on June 7 and run instead in the 1-mile Jersey Derby on May 26, Charles Whittingham was pointing Ferdinand north toward Belmont Park. The race for the Triple Crown was over, but the 73-year-old trainer left Pimlico with no regrets. "I can't complain," Whittingham said. "I feel bad for him. I feel bad for myself. But as long as the horse comes back all right, that's the main thing. He beat 'em all—but one."
And, as deeply disappointed as he must have been, Shoemaker said simply, "That's racing. I'm not going to go home and cry about it." But the final word was Stute's. Snow Chief had come back, just as Stute had believed he would. "This has vindicated both of us," he said.