Snow Chief – Pauper To Prince

Snow Chief 3

One of the more popular categories on this web-site is the “Unexpected Wonders” category. The category consists of horses from modest bloodlines who have overcome their genetic heritage to become champions on the track. When such a champion comes along, which is not a common occurrence, racing fans adopt the horse as a personal favourite.

A good friend of the web-site has asked me to write about Snow Chief. An unheralded foal from a very modest breeding family, Snow Chief would outrun his pedigree to become a three time champion California bred, and became a classic winner when he captured the 1986 Preakness Stakes on his way to an Eclipse Award as the Champion Three Year Old in his generation.

Bred in 1983 by Carl Grimstead, the dark bay almost black colt by Reflected Glory – Miss Snowflake by Snow Sporting came into the world as just another regular foal with little fanfare and the hope that he may someday win a few races of modest importance.

His sire Reflected Glory was a dark bay son of the Tom Fool stallion Jester. Reflected Glory was bred in 1964 which is also the year that Dr. Fager, Damascus and In Reality were bred. Racing against one of the best three year old crops in history, Reflected Glory would have a very good spring during his three year old season. He rattled off wins in the Bahamas Stakes, the Everglade Stakes, and won the important Flamingo Stakes over In Reality. These are very important races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, he cracked his knee in the Florida Derby forcing him to miss the Derby. Although he did come back to racing following his injury, Reflected Glory was not as competitive and did not win another stakes race.

The dam of Snow Chief, Miss Snowflake, was a modest winner of one race from five starts. She produced fourteen foals, seven of which were winners. Aside from Snow Chief, her only other stakes winning foal was G2 Royal Lodge Stakes winner Mujaazif. In fact there is only one other minor stakes winner from this female family within the previous four generations along the tail female line.

When Snow Chief was a yearling, Grimstead sold a fifty percent interest in his breeding and racing operation to Ben Rochelle. The sale included all the racing and breeding stock as well as the Blue Diamond Ranch property. Rochelle was a retired vaudevillian who later in life had become successful in real estate. During Snow Chief’s run to fame and glory, the two partners would be dubbed “The Sunshine Boys” by the press and fans alike.

The Sunshine Boys sent the handsome smallish dark bay colt to trainer Mel Stute to get him race ready. Stute was a veteran trainer on the California racing circuit, and had developed a very good reputation within the racing community. He got the quick developing son of Reflected Glory ready to roll during his two year old campaign. Jockey Alex Solis would eventually become his regular rider.

Snow Chief made his racing debut on June 19, 1985 at Hollywood Park. His time of 57 3/5 for the five furlong maiden race became in hindsight a glimpse into the future. His next race, the Desert Wine Stakes, was not a success with a sixth place finish. As it turned out, this race was the only time in which Snow Chief would be unplaced for the year. He however develop bucked shins, sidelining him until September.

Entered for the Cal bred restricted Rancho Santa Fe Stakes, Snow Chief won the six furlong Del Mar event by a comfortable one and three quarters lengths. A week later he went straight to the grade one Del Mar Futurity, finishing third to Tasso in the one mile race. Tasso would go on to become the Eclipse Award Champion Two Year Old, so this result was certainly no disgrace.

October 2 was the opening day for the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita and also the day of Snow Chief’s next appearance. He finished second by a neck to Louisiana Slew in the Sunny Slope Stakes, giving the winner four pounds in the weights. Coming back eleven days later for the grade one Norfolk Stakes at eight and one-half furlongs, Snow Chief would score his first win at the upper level of competition. There were to be many more to come.

Snow Chief won the restricted for Cal breds B.J. Ridder Stakes as the high weight in the race and then moving to Hollywood Park was upset by Darby Fair in the Hoist The Flag Stakes. The Hollywood Futurity on December 15 was next and Snow Chief rebounded in impressive fashion, taking the grade one race by a commanding six lengths at the wire. He powered his way to the lead around the far turn and drew away from the field in the very good time of 1:34 1/5. Among the colts he beat that day was Ferdinand. These two would meet again.

A season of five wins from nine starts, including a pair of grade one wins, were not only good enough to be named as the top two year old California bred colt, but also as the overall Champion California Horse of the Year. Stute and the Sunshine Boys now set their sights on the upcoming classics with high hopes for their obviously talented colt.

The three year old debut for Snow Chief came quickly in the new year. On January 12, 1986 he started in the California Breeder’s Champion Stakes at Santa Anita. Winning by four lengths, Snow Chief covered the seven furlongs in a rapid 1:21 3/5. He then travelled to the old Bay Meadows track just outside San Francisco to compete in the El Camino Real Derby, a grade three event. Victory over Badger Land in the race would identify the Sunshine Boys’ colt as a serious contender for the Kentucky Derby.

Snow Chief then reinforced his reputation with his first journey eastward for the grade one Florida Derby. The race was run on March 1 that year. Badger Land joined him in the field and the two California invaders dominated the race from the middle of the back stretch to the wire. Snow Chief led his foe by one and three-quarters lengths. Third in the race was the highly regarded Mogambo.

Jetting back to his native state, Snow Chief was now preparing to complete a very unique double in racing. The big California race for three year olds has always been the Santa Anita Derby. Snow Chief was aiming to win this race to add to his already stellar resume. Waiting for him was the ever improving Ferdinand and the inform Variety Road. Snow Chief took command of the pace from the break, set reasonable fractions along the back stretch and pulled away from the field to win by a widening six lengths over Icy Groom. Ferdinand finished third.

The double of the Florida and Santa Anita Derbies is a rare accomplishment that will likely never be duplicated. The two races are now run so close to each other on the racing calendar that it is now impossible to have a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail compete in both, let alone win the two races. In 1986 the races were run a month apart.

With a five race winning streak, three of which were grade one races over fellow Derby hopefuls, Snow Chief went to Churchill Downs as the prohibitive favourite. Not everyone was on board with his chances, as many of his detractors would question his pedigree and small size. The field attracted sixteen entrants.

Groovy would charge out of the gate outside of Snow Chief and assume command of the pace along the front stretch into the first turn. Snow Chief lay fourth at this point. Snow Chief chased the leaders along the back stretch and into the far turn where he made a move to stick his head in front midway through the turn. However the fast fractions set by Groovy, 45 1/5 for the first half mile and 1:10 1/5 for six furlongs, would be Snow Chief’s undoing. He was swallowed up by the late closers at the top of the stretch and had nothing left for the run down the home lane. Ferdinand drew away from the pack that passed Snow Chief and won the “Run For The Roses” for his esteemed trainer Charlie Whittingham. Snow Chief faded to eleventh.

The Sunshine Boys and Mel Stute were obviously disappointed. When Stute went to check his colt the following morning, he was baffled as to why he did not run on. Charlie Whittingham just happened to come over while Stute was inspecting Snow Chief and said to his friend “Throw that race out. I ran a filly in the Oaks and she ran seventh. It was probably the track. If you want to go in the Preakness, then go.” After checking their colt out thoroughly, the team decided to get ready for the Preakness Stakes two weeks later at Pimlico.

Snow Chief rebounded in the Preakness like a champion. He chased Groovy around the first turn and along the back stretch, matching him stride for stride while saving ground along the rail just off the left flank of the leader. By keeping Groovy to the outside, Alex Solis and his mount could make their move going into the far turn and challenge Groovy who Solis knew would soon tire. Snow Chief took matters in his own hands and powered past Groovy along the rail into the lead midway through the turn. Snow Chief then pulled away to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown over Ferdinand, who had no answer to his rival, by four lengths. Broad Brush finished third.

The victory was a popular one. The Sunshine Boys were a likeable team that the press and public soaked up. They gave candid interviews on national TV during the celebrations in the winner’s circle, enhancing their popularity. Mel Stute went to the windows after the post race victory presentations to cash his betting ticket. Whittingham saw him and came over to congratulate Mel and said “Damn, it is my fault. I talked you into running. I could be gunning for a Triple Crown!”

The team decided that the Belmont Stakes was not a good situation for Snow Chief, deeming the one and one-half mile distance as to be beyond his best. So they decided to enter him in the Jersey Derby, a grade two ten furlong race at Garden State Park which carried a one million dollar purse. Mogambo and Tasso were also entered but, Snow Chief took command of the pace early and never relinquished the lead. He crossed the finish line two lengths ahead of Mogambo, with the reigning two year old champion Tasso third.

Snow Chief had earned a rest. However it was not be a long rest as the grade two Silver Screen Handicap was to be run on July 5. Also entered in the race was undefeated filly Melair. This extremely fast California bred filly by unheralded sire Debonair Roger set a then world record for a filly racing at one mile in the race. She won the race by six and one-half lengths in a time of 1:32 4/5. Southern Halo finished second with Snow Chief third. Snow was giving the winner twelve pounds and Southern Halo fourteen pounds in the weights.

A bone chip was discovered in the right knee of Snow Chief, so he would undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair the damage. He came back in time for the Malibu Stakes and a reunion with old foe Ferdinand. Ferdinand was in receipt of four pounds from Snow Chief and used the weight allowance to good advantage as he won the grade two seven furlong event by one and a quarters lengths.

That was the last race of the year for Snow Chief but he had done enough in the opinions of the voters for the Eclipse Award Champion Three Year Old honour. His record of nine starts with six wins, three of which were grade one races, and one second and one third place finish were strong enough to take the award.

Stute did not wait long into 1987, Snow Chief’s four year old season, to unleash his champion. The grade one San Fernando Stakes was due to be run on January 18. Variety Road and Broad Brush would wage an all out duel to the wire, with the former winning, three and one-half lengths in front of Snow Chief. Two and a half weeks later Snow Chief captured the grade one Charles H. Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, defeating Ferdinand in the fifth race these two had met on the track. Snow Chief was just able to hold off his rival by a nose and did so in two minutes flat for the ten furlongs.

One month later these two clashed again in the “Big Cap” at Santa Anita, but Broad Brush would take the laurels with Ferdinand second and Snow Chief a disappointing fifth, seven lengths in arrears. Stute shipped Snow Chief to Florida for the Gulfstream Park Handicap, which would be Snow Chief’s third consecutive ten furlong grade one race. Skip Trial, in receipt of six pounds from Snow Chief won the race with Crème Fraiche and his four pound advantage second. Snow Chief ended up a game third.

His jet-setting ways continued as Snow Chief went to Hot Springs Arkansas for the grade two Oaklawn Handicap three weeks later. Snow Chief wrestled the lead from Lyphard’s Ridge midway along the backstretch and never looked back. He won the race by three quarters of a length ahead of Red Attack in the very fast time of 1:46 3/5 for the nine furlongs.

Nine weeks later back home in California, Snow Chief made his last start. The grade one Californian would see Snow Chief finish ahead of Ferdinand yet again. However these two finished third and fourth respectively in the race behind Judge Angelluci and Iron Eyes. Snow Chief had injured his left front leg in the contest. A pulled tendon was the culprit. The Sunshine Boys and Mel Stute decided to retire their popular champion to stud.

Snow Chief retired with a record of twenty-four starts, thirteen wins, three seconds and five third place finishes. He was the champion three year old in North America in 1986 and the California Bred Horse of the Year in all three years he competed. He would now take up stud duty in his native state at Mira Loma Farm.

Snow Chief did not have as stellar a career at stud as he did on the race track. He got only nine stakes winners of which G2 stakes winner College Town would be his best. He concluded his stallion career at Eagle Oak Ranch in Paso Robles California, were he passed away of a heart attack on the twenty-fourth anniversary of his Preakness Stakes victory.

Mel Stute would say of his champion trainee “He was the most durable horse I ever trained. He could run in the mud and on a fast track equally. He was a gutty little horse. He was something special.”

It was the determination and never quit attitude of Snow Chief that made him so popular and admired by his fans. He has the singular distinction of being the only horse in history to win both the Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby.

In 2007, Snow Chief was paraded in front of the Santa Anita faithful before the running of the Snow Chief Stakes that day. The then twenty-four year old former champ took in the adulation and pranced before his fans like a true celebrity. Stute would say that he looked like he should have run in the race.

Snow Chief remains as one of the most decorated California bred thoroughbreds of all time. Only Swaps and Candy Spots can be held in higher regard. Snow Chief’s legend is not to be forgotten. He was honest, reliable and never read his own pedigree to deter his big heart from guiding him to racing glory.

Heart was what Snow Chief had in abundance.

(Photo source unknown)


  • Great story I really enjoyed

  • Nice article on Snow Chief. I think he may have received much of his ability from his bottom side; his dam was inbred 4 x 4 to the great Argentine racehorse and stallion, Embrujo.

  • Another beautifully written article that goes to the depth of the thoroughbred’s heart and courage. Proof that it can not only found in the high priced popular pedigrees, but in a little horse with an enormous heart.

  • lovely story with good owners

  • Marlaine Meeker

    So nice to read. I remember Snow Chief as my derby pick. Thanks for this article.

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