Shrouded by a mist quite appropriate to the occasion, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. Snow Chief broke away from his lead pony on the backstretch at Santa Anita Racetrack and began galloping slowly toward the ⅝ pole.
It was early last Saturday morning, and the favorite to win the 112th running of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday was about to go five furlongs, his last serious workout before being shipped to Louisville. Trainers and jockey agents flocked to the rail to watch the move, while the colt's assistant trainer, Fernando Alvarez, stood watching in the grandstand, stopwatch in hand. "We want him to go easy the first quarter, and then run as fast as he can the last three-eighths," Alvarez said.
Snow Chief is a small but very neatly balanced colt, reminiscent in size and style of Round Table, a horse celebrated for his economy of movement. Sweeping his forelegs low to the ground, Snow Chief, ridden by his regular jockey, Alex Solis, moved with the precision of a metronome, ticktocking through the opening 220 yards in 12 seconds and the quarter in 24.
"Now he goes," said Alvarez.
Suddenly, Solis took a hold of the colt and asked for more speed. Taking off, Snow Chief dashed through a third eighth in a sharp 11[3/5] seconds, then raced the final quarter in 22[4/5] for a five-furlong clocking of 58[2/5], racehorse time. As the Chief sashayed off, several observers wanted to know how fast he had gone through his paces.
"Fifty-eight and two!" said jockey agent Rick Payne.
"Whew!" said one rider.
"They better put him on the plane to Louisville now," crowed Payne. "He's ready!"
"Just about perfect," his trainer, Mel Stute, agreed.
No doubt he is. But, at this juncture, Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a race perceived as through a mist, darkly. Snow Chief has won his last five starts, all stakes, and there are those who see him as such a sure thing that his defeat would set handicapping back 200 years. Hold your horses here for a while, though.