ARCADIA, Calif. (Aug. 12, 2020)–He came to play. There is perhaps no better way to describe Melvin Frederick Stute, a California-based trainer who passed away earlier this morning at age 93 while in the company of his family, including his beloved wife Annabelle, to whom he would’ve been married 70 years on Aug. 21.
“He was like no other person I ever met,” said his son Gary Stute, a trainer who returned to the Del Mar rental he shared with his parents following training this morning at Del Mar and discovered that his father had not awoken. “He saw the good in everyone. He woke up every day thinking he was going to win, cashing a bet or winning a race. He loved life and he loved racing, everything about it.
“With him and Warren (Mel’s deceased older brother who was also a trainer and an iconic force in California racing), their whole lives were racing. My dad came to the races, he gambled and he had fun. He took people to dinner after the races and if he had money in his pocket, he’d give it away to any racetracker that needed it.
“I don’t think he ever said ‘No” to a gambler if he had 20 (dollars) on him. He loved life and he loved to party. He turned 93 on Saturday, but we had a party for him on Thursday and he really enjoyed it. My sisters were here and we were so glad we were able to get everyone together. He fell here at home a week ago Sunday and broke his knee, but he hit the Pick Six that same day at Saratoga. We kept him here at the house, but he was in bad shape, so we had his party a couple days early.”
Never shy about entering his horses and a racing secretary’s best friend wherever he competed, Mel Stute made an indelible mark on the California racing landscape throughout a career that began in the late 1940s until he retired from training in January, 2011, with 2,000 career wins.
A perennial “Top 10” trainer at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Fairplex Park in Pomona, Stute dead-heated with Lazaro Barrera atop the 1984-85 Santa Anita Winter/Spring standings with 27 wins and was the all-time leading trainer at Fairplex for many years.
Stute’s stable was at the zenith of its power in the mid 1980s, when his California-bred Snow Chief burst upon the national scene. A winner of the 1986 Santa Anita Derby, Snow Chief disappointed in the Kentucky Derby, but bounced back with a tremendous performance two weeks later, winning the Preakness Stakes with regular rider Alex Solis.
A winner as well of the 1986 El Camino Real Derby, Florida Derby and Jersey Derby, Snow Chief was voted America’s Champion 3-year-old Male for 1986. Owned and bred by Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle, Snow Chief would retire at age four with an overall mark of 24-13-3-5 and earnings of $3.8 million.
A pair of dynamic fillies, Brave Raj and Very Subtle, would also take Mel Stute to racing’s center stages in the mid-80s.
Ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, Brave Raj took the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita and was subsequently named Eclipse Champion 2-year-old Filly, while Very Subtle, also piloted by Valenzuela, beat the boys in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Hollywood Park.
Although California-bred First Balcony provided Stute with his first-ever $100,000 stakes victory in the 1961 Californian at Hollywood Park, it was a nondescript California-bred named Telly’s Pop that would bring Stute his first taste of “A-List” success 14 years hence.
By Bold Combatant, out of the Count of Honor mare Count Us Mary, Telly’s Pop was bred in part by Stute, who sold him for $6,000 as a yearling to a partnership that included movie mogul Howard Koch and famed actor Telly Savalas. When asked at the time why he sold the horse, Stute, whose affinity for playing the races was well known, jokingly explained that he told Koch he could either buy the horse or lend him the cash.
Named for his father, Savalas commanded a large entourage whenever and wherever the horse ran and he reveled in the media glare generated by Telly’s Pop, who won four stakes at age two in 1975, the Haggin Stakes at Hollywood Park, the Del Mar Futurity, the Norfolk at Santa Anita and the California Juvenile at Bay Meadows, all in combination with Francisco (Paco) Mena.
As the calendar turned to 1976, Telly’s Pop was widely regarded as a prominent Kentucky Derby hopeful and following his win in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, he was made the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, but he finished fifth (his Double Discount was second) and didn’t win again prior to being retired in October, 1977.
Born on Aug. 8, 1927 in Fort Wayne, Ind., Stute moved west with his family at age seven and would become an outstanding athlete at Covina High School, where he excelled in track and field as well as basketball.
A trainer who ran “early and often,” Stute’s horses were especially highly regarded on off tracks, which many handicappers ascribed to their level of fitness–a Stute hallmark. When asked why his horses seemed to do better in the mud, Stute would often draw upon his own experiences as an athlete in high school, maintaining that the harder he himself trained, the fitter he became and thus, the more success he enjoyed.
Currently ranked 10th on Santa Anita’s Winter/Spring list of races won with 540 victories, Stute ranks 17th all-time by stakes won, with 38.
A longtime resident of Glendora, where for decades he could be found at all Glendora High School basketball games, Mel Stute is survived by his wife Annabelle, daughters Jena, Gail, son Gary and six grandchildren. Funeral services are undetermined at this time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.