Could it have been an omen when a cold front rolled in from the west early Saturday morning, bringing a dusting of snow to northern Florida? Some of the more superstitious bettors at Gulf-stream Park, some 300 miles farther south, must have thought so after watching the 35th running of the Florida Derby that afternoon. Snow Chief, the 3-2 favorite from the Coast, stormed to the lead and held off a game challenge by fellow Californian Badger Land to win the $500,000, 1‚⅛-mile race by 1¾ lengths. One in the jubilant group that assembled in the winner's circle, Ben Rochelle, a former song-and-dance man who owns half of Snow Chief, declared, "This is more thrilling than show business."
Yes, there's no business like Snow business. Going into the race, the 3-year-old colt was already the youngest equine millionaire in history, and the $300,000 winner's purse kicked his bankroll up to an astonishing $1,444,040. He had collected all his previous loot on the hard freeway surfaces of California, winning seven of 11 races in a kind of one-horse gold rush. The question was, how would Snow Chief fare on the deep and tiring Gulfstream track? His trainer, Mel Stute (rhymes with Flutie), was asked that question dozens of times in the days before the race. "I'm no genius," the 58-year-old trainer would patiently reply, "but I believe he will like this track. He wants to go."
There were lots of other horses that wanted to go, 15 of them in fact, making this the largest single Florida Derby field since 1974. The race was the year's first major prep for the Kentucky Derby, and the lure of Louisville, along with the lucrative purse, was enough to attract horses good and bad from near and far.
Snow Chief's nemesis, according to some experts, would be the Leroy Jolly-trained Mogambo, winner of the Champagne Stakes at Belmont, who two weeks earlier had won a seven-furlong race over the Gulfstream track in impressive fashion. Then there was Glow, a Northern Dancer colt, trained by wily Woody Stephens. He had also won his last race at Gulfstream, at 1[1/16] miles, by a whopping 11½ lengths. And there was Snow Chief's traveling companion to Florida, Badger Land, tutored by supertrainer D. Wayne Lukas. Badger Land had finished second to Snow Chief by 2½ lengths in the El Camino Real Derby over a sloppy track Feb. 2, but his owners had enough confidence in the colt to pay a $12,500 supplementary fee to get him into the Florida Derby.
Mogambo had the No. 1 post position and the redoubtable Angel Cordero on his back. Snow Chief was parked way over in the 12 hole, in danger of being blocked by the Florida Derby's heavy traffic. But when the dust had settled after the initial cavalry charge, there was Snow Chief in the lead. And that was the race. The long-striding Badger Land made a serious run on the far turn and came within a nose, but Snow Chief put on a flurry in the stretch to win in 1:51⅘ the slowest Florida Derby since 1955. (Who was the plodder who won then? A pretty good horse named Nashua.) Mogambo wound up in third, five lengths behind Badger Land. "Snow Chief broke real good," said his jockey, Alexis Solis, who made the trip sound like a toboggan ride. "I found myself in the lead by myself and I just went from there. The other horse stayed with him for a few strides, but every time he sees a horse coming, he takes off. He's a racehorse. He knows how to win."
Not a bad performance for a million-dollar baby from a 5 & 10¢ sire. Snow Chief's daddy, 22-year-old Reflected Glory, stands at Rancho Jonata near Buellton, Calif., where he commands all of $2,000 as a stud fee. This puts Snow Chief right in there with a number of champions-to-be who brought humble origins to the Kentucky Derby. Last year's winner, Spend a Buck, was bought as a yearling for only $12,500; Sunny's Halo, the 1983 champ, was out of a $3,900 mare, Mostly Sunny; the '82 Derby winner, Gato del Sol, had such an unfashionable pedigree that he couldn't get into the Keeneland (Ky.) summer sale.
Carl Grinstead, 70, Snow Chief's breeder, owns the other half of the colt. "I bought my first horse in 1960," says Grinstead, a retired electrical engineer from Chula Vista, Calif. "Within three years I had my trainer's license." In the next few years, Grinstead helped produce a number of nice horses, including Telly's Pop, winner of the '76 California Derby. In April 1984, Grinstead sold a half interest in his thoroughbred operation to Rochelle, who is a spritely 75. Together the California Golden Boys—Grinstead, Rochelle and Stute—have 203 years of experience to give their colt.
Rochelle, an ex-vaudevillian, had owned pieces of horses here and there, but not with much success. Then he approached Grinstead about buying a share of a nice colt named Sari's Dreamer. "I told him," said Grinstead, "that I'd sell him half of my whole operation, or no deal." Rochelle agreed and became a limited partner in Grinstead's Blue Diamond Ranch. "I told Carl," Ben said, "that I wanted him to call the shots, make all the decisions. I believe in being a silent partner. That way I'm never wrong."
Rochelle knows a lot about being a partner. He went to Hollywood High, learned to dance "pretty well" and got work at MGM dancing with the likes of Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. Then he married dancer Jane Beebe, and together Rochelle and Beebe trod the boards all over the world. This was their act: They would appear onstage, he in tails and she in an evening gown, an elegant dance team. After a few bars of serious dancing, Jane would stop and look lovingly at Ben. He would put his arms around her, and then the 5'1" Beebe would toss him over her head. "From then on it was havoc," says Rochelle.
Ben always liked horses. "I was a big $2 bettor," he says. "At that time there was a guy in show business who used to do a lot of horse routines onstage. His name was Joe Frisco, and he did his whole act with a Racing Form. Every time I'd run into Joe Frisco in a book-making place, he would say, 'Hi! Howya doing?' and I'd say, 'O.K.' Then he'd say, 'I got a good one in the third race, let's go dollar-dollar.' "
Rochelle and Beebe continued to knock 'em dead until they retired in 1959. So what does an ex-hoofer from Hollywood do when he hangs up his shoes? He goes into real estate in Orange County, Calif. Rochelle flourished in the business, acquiring numerous housing developments, a passel of mobile-home parks and a lot of money. Jane died in April 1983, and a year later Ben became Grinstead's partner in the Blue Diamond Ranch. Now he owns 50% of the Kentucky Derby favorite.
Snow Chief's next appearance will be in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, then he'll head to Churchill Downs. At the moment it appears that his main rivals for the Roses are Tasso, the 2-year-old champion, and Meadowlake, a Midwesterner who has run only two races but won them by a total of more than 30 lengths. Neither Tasso nor Meadowlake has yet raced as a three-year-old.
"I played Louisville many times in my career, but I never went to the Kentucky Derby," says Rochelle. "I wanna do a little ol' soft shoe in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs."
O.K., Ben. But you've got to remember not to yell "Break a leg!" when Snow Chief comes onto the track.