Racing lights dim with passing of Griffin, Warren Stute

Aug 21, 2007 1:22 AM

Merv Griffin was larger than life.

He needed racing as much as racing needed him, so when he died at 82 on Aug. 12, each suffered a definitive loss.

Griffin wasn’t in racing for the money. He was a billionaire before he won the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with champion Stevie Wonderboy, and before he won this year’s San Felipe Stakes with Cobalt Blue. Griffin was in racing for the fun of it, and nobody had more fun than he did.

Griffin brought a buzz to racing. When he came to see one of his horses run, he was surrounded by an entourage and attracted fans like a rock star, usually wearing outlandish garb in garish colors, right out of a Batman comic book.

 At Santa Anita one day, I snaked through the walking ring crowd to say hello and tell him of my passion for "Jeopardy," the game show he created which became the most successful in television history.

"Then we’ll have to get you on," Griffin beamed with his Cheshire cat smile. He was a walking sound bite, and the media hung on his every word. Among other things, Griffin was a singer, actor, businessman, TV talk show host and creator of "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune." But he doted on racing.

"Merv just absolutely loved the sport," said Doug O’Neill, who trained his horses. "He was so successful in everything he touched, but racing was his love. I actually participated in a couple meetings with Merv where he and his people were discussing racing and a reality TV show, and he interrupted one a couple times to show Stevie Wonderboy stretch runs. There were people in the meetings who weren’t that interested, but that was Merv’s passion.

"The majority of the time, he would have TVG on television while the meetings were going on. As successful as he was in other business, he could talk horse racing all day long. I was only blessed to know him the last few years. I never got to know Merv that well other than talking horses once or twice a week, but he was always full of energy, whether I was telling him a horse wouldn’t run for three months or a horse was going to run next week. He was always so excited and pumped up.

"I’ll never forget the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park. Here we were in New York, the home of those great Broadway shows--and he had his hand in more than a few—but winning a race on that stage with Mr. Griffin was hard to top."

Griffin affirmed those thoughts. "There’s a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all that stuff," he was quoted as saying after Stevie Wonderboy’s victory. "Then there’s fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun, but this is extraordinary."

Stevie Wonderboy, named for pop icon Stevie Wonder, never made it to the 2006 Kentucky Derby because of an injury. Griffin’s Derby hopeful this year, Cobalt Blue, didn’t run because he wasn’t at his best.

"I was always sort of taken aback when I had to talk to Merv, because of his status, and sometimes he would call me out of the blue to get my opinion on how his horses were doing," said Doug’s brother and business partner, Dennis. "He called me the week of the Derby and asked me about Cobalt Blue. ”˜Give me the skinny, Dennis,’" he said. ”˜Do I have any chance to win the Kentucky Derby?’ And I was like, wow. I had to think about it, and I was honest. He loved honesty.

"But the thing I’ll always remember is when we won the Breeders’ Cup with Stevie Wonderboy. Here was a man who had so much success in his life, accomplished so much and won so many awards, and he was like a little kid when Stevie Wonderboy won."

Racing lost no less a treasure when Warren Stute, a training fixture in Southern California for some six decades, died at 85 on Aug. 9. A crusty bird who soldiered on despite two strokes in his latter years, Stute was in many ways the antithesis of Griffin. Warren, the older brother of 80-year-old trainer Mel Stute, maintained a low profile, but was ever-present at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner in the mornings at his regular table. Many a yarn was spun there.

"It’s a great loss to our industry," said Warren’s 45-year-old son, trainer Glen Stute. "There was such an outpouring of love for him. He touched so many people’s lives that it’s almost overwhelming. He was all tough and grit on the outside, but on the inside, he had a heart of gold. He was a real horseman and wasn’t afraid to tell anybody the truth, even if it hurt him, and that may have been to his disadvantage. But it gained him respect in the long run, because he was right the majority of the time.

"He was in the hospital during a recent siege, and had an oxygen mask on. He was still fighting and doing pretty well, even though everyone thought he was going. Anyway, he was trying to talk and went to remove the oxygen mask, but my mother (Trudy) warned him to keep it on, because he needed it to breath. He just looked at her and said, ”˜Baloney.’ My dad had a good, long life. He went wire-to-wire for 85 years."

The homestretch

”¡ Greg Gilchrist, who plans to run Smokey Stover in the Icecapade Stakes at Monmouth on Sept. 1 in his final major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Oct. 27, has raced at the Oceanport, N.J. track only once before.

"I ran a little horse called Beyond Brilliant there five or six years ago," the 59-year-old Bay Area-based trainer said. Gilchrist expects Bay Meadows to close after its 2008 campaign, and wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood Park follows suit sometime thereafter. Each track is owned by the Bay Meadows Land Co., a real estate development firm.

"I think they want to close Bay Meadows in June (of next year)," Gilchrist said. "They would like to have some really good dates at the start of the year, but I don’t see the California Horse Racing Board doing that. Why would you give a track that’s going out of business the best dates, and penalize a track (Golden Gate) 30 miles away that’s upgrading? That wouldn’t make sense to me, but it’s not my decision. I wish Bay Meadows was not closing. Same with Hollywood. But when a track is owned by a land development company, the title kind of gives you an idea of what they’ve got in mind, and it’s not racing."