California-bred Quick Little Miss is owned in partnership by Stute's wife, Annabelle, and longtime clients Bay and Dan Shiffer's The Hat Ranch, and was purchased by 79-year-old Stute for just $40,000 out of the Barretts selected 2-year-olds in training sale this year. After three uninspiring starts, the daughter of Freud in September blossomed just in time to capture the Barretts Debutante Stakes at Fairplex Park in impressive fashion. So impressive, in fact, Stute started dreaming of Breeders' Cup for her almost as soon as the race was declared official.
"There were all these tents set up in the infield that day," Stute said of the filly's maiden triumph. "I couldn't see her running up the backstretch, but I heard (announcer) Trevor Denman's call. She went from last to first in just a few strides and won going away. After the Oak Leaf (where she was a fast-closing third) I knew she was a really good filly. She's a big, stout filly and I train her pretty hard, which she loves. She's maturing at the right time and I believe she's got a heck of a chance, or we wouldn't be going."
Known to many as a California legend, Stute remembers his foray into Thoroughbred racing "way back" in the late 1930s, following older brother Warren, who was "maybe 16 or so at the time" from their native Indiana to Longacres Park in Washington State. At the time, Warren was galloping horses and young Mel was learning the ropes, walking hots on the backstretch. Stute fondly recollects that time in his life as the beginning of his big dreams.
"Back then there was no hot water on the backstretch," Stute explained. "So I'd get up really early and light the fire for the boiler. The boiler was this big pot full of water that sat in the middle of the tow ring. Sometimes if someone won a race they'd put potatoes and carrots and stuff in it and we'd all have stew for dinner. But mostly I remember that it'd be 5:00 in the morning and I'd just sit there and watch the fire under the boiler. I'd dream about the Kentucky Derby and stakes races and good horses. I remember just sitting there, looking at the fire and dreaming."
On his own and training soon after, it wasn't long before Stute started to make his lofty dreams come true. He saddled his first winner at Portland Meadows in 1947 and his first of dozens of stakes winners 14 years later. A top trainer in the Golden State ever since, he earned several training titles at Hollywood Park and commanded the winner's circle at the Pomona Fair (now known as Fairplex Park), where he still ranks as the all-time leading trainer in Fairplex Park history and the track's first Hall of Fame member.
But even with all his Southern California success, Stute made a name for himself on the national stage in 1986 with a little Cal-bred named Snow Chief. The 1986 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner, who also captured that year's Jersey Derby, retired in 1987 as the state's leading money winner with $3,383,210 in career earnings and is still fourth on that list behind Lava Man, Tiznow and Best Pal.
And as good as Snow Chief was, it was the fillies in his life who gave Stute his greatest highs and the most worldwide attention. In 1986, Stute saddled champion juvenile filly Brave Raj to victory in the third running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) over his home track of Santa Anita. A year later, he sent out the 3-year-old filly Very Subtle to a 16-1 upset victory over the world's best in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Hollywood Park, defeating eventual champion Groovy by four lengths.
"She was a very good filly," Stute said of Very Subtle. "She surprised a lot of people that day, but she didn't surprise me."
Racing for Stute still is absolutely a family affair. Brother Warren, who has always been by his side since those early days, is a very accomplished trainer in his own right. Son Gary also campaigns a strong string of horses in California, and nephew Glen is by 84-year-old Warren's side, assisting with his father's full barn. Most days the Stute family can be found at Santa Anita's Clocker's Corner, having coffee and breakfast and sharing stories about their lifelong love affair with Thoroughbreds. Though Stute will be traveling to Kentucky without his clan, all will be watching and all will be cheering for a victory.
"Oh we'll be watching," son Gary said. "And knowing my dad in the Breeders' Cup, we'll be cashing some tickets."
And, like in the old days back in Washington, planning on making a stew.