They better take down the ‘No Smoking’ sign if Papa Clem wins the Derby.
Not only will Gary Stute be there with bells on, he’ll be in the winner’s circle with his ever-present cigar, a dark brown Dominican stogie manufactured by Montecristo that’s never far from his lips or his fingers. Hey, at $12 a pop, it’s wise not to leave them in an ash tray.
He trains Papa Clem, an upstart 3-year-old who thrust himself into the Kentucky Derby picture by defeating previous Derby favorite Old Fashioned by a half-length in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 11. It was the biggest win ever for Stute, a 52-year-old race track lifer who has kicked around on his own for a tad over two decades.
Oh, he’s had some nice pay days, like the $124,881 Pick Six he hit at Oak Tree in 2005, when he keyed his filly Da Svedonya (it means goodbye in Russian) to win a $12,500 claiming race. And he’s had some previous Derby experience, with his dad, 81-year-old trainer Mel Stute, when he ran his only two Derby horses, Bold ‘n Rulling, who finished sixth at 68-1 under Pat Valenzuela in 1980, and Snow Chief, the 2-1 favorite that ran 11th under Alex Solis in 1986.
But if Papa Clem gets to the starting gate at Churchill Downs as expected on Saturday, it will mark the first time Gary Stute has flown solo in the world’s most famous horse race. He gives the horse most of the credit for his success, which is understandable, coming from a guy who has won less than 300 races in a career dating back to 1982 and who currently trains only seven horses, including Papa Clem and his half-sister, a filly named Magical Victory.
Papa Clem, a $125,000 son of Smart Strike owned by Bo Hirsch, son of the late Clement Hirsch (thus, Papa Clem), Oak Tree’s first president, was beaten only a half-length by one of the Derby favorites, Pioneerof the Nile, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 7. Stute shipped the bay colt to New Orleans, where he finished a well-beaten second to Friesan Fire after setting the pace in the Louisiana Derby on March 14. But it wasn’t until Papa Clem outdueled Old Fashioned in a lengthy stretch run that he drew serious attention from racing insiders.
Papa Clem changed tactics in the Arkansas Derby, rallying from fifth to wear down Old Fashioned near the wire. "I think the horse did it on his own," Stute said of the style variation, "although I never really thought of him as a speed horse. He likes to go (a half mile in) about :47, and he just ended up on the lead (in the Louisiana Derby, in which the half-mile time was :48 3/5).
"In the Arkansas Derby, they went a little faster than he’s used to going early (:46 flat for the half), but I was a little nervous going to the first turn, because (jockey Rafael) Bejarano asked him when he left the gate, and he couldn’t get to the lead. It turned out well, because Rafael was smart enough not to rush him and instead wrap up and make a run at them.
"It was by far the biggest race I ever won. I was a little excited, but now I’m more excited. He might not win the Derby, but I definitely have a shot to hit the board, so I don’t feel like I’m here just to be here. I think I’ve got a legitimate chance."
Papa Mel thought he had a legitimate chance, too, in 1986, but Snow Chief, the pride of California, bombed. He redeemed himself by winning the Preakness. Mel’s experience was usefully delivered to Gary.
"My dad told me not to get too excited, because if things don’t work out, it can be awful depressing in the end," Gary said. "That was the best advice he gave me."
Save for his first race, in which he finished sixth after bobbling at the start, Papa Clem has always run well, with two wins, two seconds and a fourth in his five subsequent starts. He has earned $790,940, and won on synthetic and traditional dirt.
"The horse just keeps getting better and better," Stute said. "I think it’s blind luck, to be honest with you. I thought his Lewis race was excellent. He’s getting better with time, and he’s getting more professional. I don’t think the dirt’s hurt or helped him either way."
To no one’s surprise, since he was born in Covina and resides in Pasadena, Gary holds unflagging support for California’s Derby contingent, especially Pioneerof the Nile, who has won four straight stakes since being turned over to Bob Baffert, yet continues to draw disdainful sneers in some quarters for "winning ugly."
"How can you knock Pioneerof the Nile?" Stute asked. "I think his best style is coming from out of it, like he did in the Lewis, and he beat I Want Revenge and Papa Clem, two legitimate horses, and he went on to win two more with a pace scenario that’s not complimentary to him. To me, that takes a special horse. I think he’s got a heckuva shot."
As do Papa Clem and Gary’s expensive El Ropos. My old Army sargent used to bark, "Smoke ’em if you got ’em," and that’s one command Gary doesn’t have to hear twice. "I’ve always had an addictive personality," he said. "Smoking cigars is my best addiction."
• A rumor that Garrett Gomez delayed his decision to ride Pioneerof the Nile or Dunkirk in the Derby because he was holding out for an up-front retainer, in addition to his standard riding fee, was false. I asked Bob Baffert point blank if it was true at Santa Anita before Gomez announced on April 19 that he would ride Pioneerof the Nile. Baffert’s answer: "That’s bulls—."
• Quality Road would have been the betting favorite at 4-1. Now it’s Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge and Friesan Fire in the 5-1, 6-1 range, and the others any number. Live longshots: Square Eddie and Win Willy.
• Not only will Mel Stute be at Churchill Downs to see son Gary send out Papa Clem in the Derby, he’ll saddle a 3-year-old filly he trains, Kitty in the Bag, in the $100,000 Eight Belles Handicap on the card.
• Lookalikes: Lamar Odom and Mr. Clean.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden