Stute (as in beauty) does his duty racing in California

May 31, 2005 12:59 AM

The Stute family has been around California racing since the Seabiscuit era.

The legendary horse and movie star is long gone, having died in 1947. If racing continues in its present discouraging trend, the Stutes might one day follow, although none seems ready to retire anytime soon, despite an apparent losing battle against inflation.

"Trouble for Santa Anita and Hollywood Park began when they were sold years ago," said colorful and candid Mel Stute (as in beauty), who turns 78 on Aug. 8. "Santa Anita was great when the Strubs had it. Since the tracks have been sold there’s no hands-on ownership and it seems like profit has become the top priority. I blame the trainers for much of the current problems. Recently at Bay Meadows they had 48 horses running on an eight-race card. People don’t want to come out and bet on the races with small fields like that."

Mel and his 83-year-old brother, Warren, were weaned on California racing. Warren, who trains Illinois Derby winner Greeley’s Galaxy, saddled his first winner in the Golden State in 1939, while Mel won his first at Pomona in 1948.

Mel’s 49-year-old son, Gary, is a successful trainer, while Warren’s son, Glen, also a trainer, has assisted the old man for several years since Warren suffered a couple of minor strokes. If it were up to Mel, he’d just as soon see Gary move to a more lucrative circuit.

"I’d like to get my son to go somewhere else, to be truthful," Mel said. Spoken like a true father, always looking out for his offspring’s best interests.

"Expenses are so high in California," said Mel, whose wife, Annabelle, is an owner and breeder.

"It’s not only workmen’s comp (insurance)," Mel said. "It costs $120 to shoe a horse, but I guess back East it’s just as bad."

With the live fan base shrinking faster than Michael Jackson’s nose, Stute suggested one possible resolution, if he had his druthers.

"I know the breeding industry needs money, but I would take some of the money from that fund to try and help in other areas," Stute said. "When my wife breeds a winning horse she gets 15 percent of the purse. I get 10 and I’m the trainer, so there’s 25 percent I think could more or less be going to the owner. To me, the business is just going backwards. I remember when I ran at Bay Meadows for a $2,200 purse. Back at Portland Meadows I ran for a purse that was $500 and I got $244 for winning. But things were different then. It didn’t cost near as much to operate your stable.

"These days when I drive from Santa Anita to Hollywood it costs me probably 15 to 20 dollars. If I have a groom who lives on that side of town, I have to pay him, too. When one of my horses wins, I get 10 percent, the groom gets one percent, the barn gets two. The poor owner pays for most everything. Out of a $50,000 purse, the owner would net $22,000.

"I look at California racing as half-empty as opposed to half-full but I think it will rebound. I watched the Preakness on television and there was a heckuva live turnout so that shows if you have a good product and it’s well-promoted, it will succeed. But racing will never be like it was before off-track betting came along.

"I have guys where I buy my donuts who used to hit me for passes to the track every day, but now they have accounts with TVG and just call in their bets. They don’t even have to come to the races or even leave their home. The horsemen benefit somewhat from that but not as much as if the bets were made at the track. The pie is cut in a lot of pieces."

But it wasn’t very tasty according to a report on the Bloodhorse website on May 27, which noted that "wagering in California on horse racing has declined from last year by nearly $65 million through the first 5½ months of the 2005 season . . . ”˜Overall these numbers are dismal,’ said California Horse Racing Board commissioner Richard Shapiro. ”˜We’ve had 315,000 less fans.’"

There is a bright side. As reported in the May 30 issue of Sports Illustrated, more than 156,000 saw Giacomo win the Kentucky Derby and a record 115,318 were on hand to see Afleet Alex win the Preakness. There’s plenty ailing racing, but for three spring Saturdays, including the Belmont Stakes, the runners still rule.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Pending a final workout, Jeff Mullins is on hold with Santa Anita Derby winner Buzzards Bay for the mile and a half Belmont Stakes on June 11.

"The way he’s training, the distance worries me," Mullins said of Buzzards Bay, who was fifth in the Kentucky Derby and passed the Preakness. "He’s training a little too sharp and I’m not keen about going a mile and a half right now."

Asked his thoughts about the Fred Astaire maneuver by Afleet Alex in the Preakness, Mullins said, "He’s a monster. I’ve never seen a horse do what he did and come back to win. Nine out of 10 times that horse would have been pulled up." Mullins has never run a horse in the Belmont Stakes.

”¡ Two words on how Manu Ginobili and Steve Nash could see more of the court: bobby pins.