He was born in America's heartland, but the West beckoned him and his family when he was a small child. They arrived in the Golden State at a time of big change, and it was a change that would impact the young boy for the better.
He did not know it then, but he was meant to have a great life filled with family, friends and accomplishment. He would also become one of the most popular, respected and legendary figures in California racing. And this man was the shining example of how nice guys can finish first.
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1927, Melvin Frederick Stute did not spend too many years in the Hoosier State. His family packed up and headed West in the 1930s, which happened to coincide with the return of Thoroughbred racing to California thanks to legislation allowing for parimutuel wagering. Of course, that led to the construction and opening of Santa Anita Park, as well as Del Mar and Hollywood Park later on. Those tracks would play a major part in the career of Mel Stute.
In the Army at one time, Mel ventured into Thoroughbred racing because of his older brother, Warren, who was destined for a successful training career like his sibling. Mel learned his occupation from his brother and trainer Yorkie McLeod, getting his first win as a trainer in 1947 when he saddled Egg Nog at Portland Meadows. Mel would win races at other tracks in later years, but his home circuit would always be Southern California.
He would also be known for conditioning claiming horses and winning races. But Stute proved more than capable of guiding stakes winners. His first stakes horse was First Balcony, who won stakes at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in 1961, including the Californian at the latter venue. Getting victories at that level of competition was the culmination of perserverance and hard work, and First Balcony was far from the last stakes horse to take up residence in Stute's stable.
The end of the 1960s saw Stute team with Commissary to wins in the Del Mar Oaks and Senorita Stakes, as well as the 1970 Vanity Handicap. Five years after the Vanity, the next big Thoroughbred to come under Mel's care was Telly's Pop, who counted television star Telly Savalas among his owners. Debuting in 1975, Telly's Pop was a popular and talented California-bred who captured the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes that year to be named the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's Top Two-Year-Old Cal-bred Male. Telly's Pop was also a Grade II winner at the age of three, taking the California Derby in his 1976 debut.
Joining Telly's Pop as one of Stute's top Thoroughbreds of the 1970s was Double Discount, a claimer-turned-stakes winner whose brightest moment came in the 1977 Grade I Carleton F. Burke Handicap. Competing at Santa Anita, Double Discount set a world record for a mile and one-quarter on turf. Both horses were well-known in their day, but more big names would reside in Stute's barn.
Without question, the mid-1980s ranks as the most exciting time in Stute's career. He trained a pair of Breeders' Cup winners in Brave Raj and Very Subtle, saddling the former to a win in the Grade I Juvenile Fillies en route to the Eclipse Award for Champion-Two-Year-Old filly of 1986 and the latter to a victory over the boys in the 1987 Grade I Breeders' Cup Sprint. He may have trained a plethora of claiming horses, but Stute knew how to supervise a champion Thoroughbred.
That was especially true with his most successful horse, the legendary Snow Chief. Under Stute's direction, Snow Chief captured several graded stakes in his three seasons of competition, with the Hollywood Futurity, Florida and Santa Anita Derbies, the Preakness Stakes, Charles H. Strub Stakes, and the Oaklawn Handicap among his triumphs. Snow Chief also claimed at least one Grade I contest every year he was in action, was the CTBA's first three-time Cal-bred Horse of the Year, and reigned for years as the top earning Cal-bred of all time.
Stute and Snow Chief rank as one of the greatest duos in the history of California racing, and Snow Chief alone demonstrated how much of an expert horseman Stute was.
Additional statistics only enhance this fact. Stute's resume includes training titles at Santa Anita (both for the winter/spring and Oak Tree meets), Hollywood Park (both the spring and fall meets), and Fairplex Park.
Speaking of Fairplex, Mel was the undisputed master of the Pomona bullring. He won seven titles and over 180 races throughout his seasons there, and his accomplishments earned him the distinction of being the first inductee into the Fairplex Hall of Fame, a truly well-deserved honor.
That was not the only Hall of Fame Stute was destined for. In 2008, Mel was part of the class for that year's CTBA Hall of Fame, and no one deserved it more than him. Perhaps a time will come when he one days gets that deserved induction into the National Racing Hall of Fame. It is an omission that baffles a lot of people. That included Warren Stute, who summed it up in one sentence in 2003. “It’s an absolute injustice that he is not in the Hall of Fame.”
In addition to those accolades, Mel earned more awards for his life's work. Both he and his brother, Warren, were honored by the California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the brothers were co-winners of the Laffit Pincay, Jr. Award in 2006. The Pincay Award is quite an honor, for it is given to "an individual who has served the sport with integrity, extraordinary dedication, determination and distinction."
Stute trained horses until 2011, guiding more stakes winners in Buffythecenterfold, College Town (who was sired by Snow Chief), Funontherun and Perfect Moon, among others. In a sixty-four career, Mel achieved 2,000 victories, dozens of stakes wins, multiple training titles and the respect and admiration of a countless number of individuals.
After retirement, Stute was still a presence at the racetracks, presenting the trophy to the winner of the Snow Chief Stakes or sitting with fellow trainers at Clockers' Corner. And those who sat with him were treated to stories about his adventures in racing, and was he ever a master storyteller. It was impossible to not be captivated by one of his tales, and those who listened to him walked away learning a little more about racing history.
But Mel was much more than a trainer and storyteller. He was a man filled with kindness for people, and those people looked up to him. Count fellow trainers and jockeys among them, and it is clear he had an influence on his son, Gary, who served as an assistant trainer for his father and has headed his own operation for years.
When Mel passed away in August 2020, just a few days after his 93rd birthday, the love and respect people had for him was evident. Though there was a lot of sadness, there was also no hesitation in recounting the good he did for people and just how much of a positive force he was.
He is missed, but he lives on, for Mel actually has two legacies. The first is a professional legacy. Mel was passionate about Thoroughbred racing, and he crafted a laudable career despite never having a super stable like what is seen in the present day. He ranks in the top ten in overall wins at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita (winter/spring meet), and won close to 300 races at Del Mar. Given how he won well over 1,000 races on a tough circuit like Southern California, that says a lot about Mel's talent as a trainer. But it is also a tale of what can be achieved with hard work and a love for one's job. Really, Mel's career is one of inspiration.
The second legacy is a personal one. It is clear that Mel had a positive influence on scores of individuals, and his good nature is an example for people to follow. Just read stories about him from over the years, and you will see what a great person he really was.
A devoted and loving husband and father and a friend to many, it is safe to say Mel touched many lives. When you hear so many folks say something good about one person, you know that that person is indeed special.
And it can be said that both the racing world and the world at large is richer because of Mel Stute.
2012 Hollywood Park Media Guide, pp. 342-343
”It’s an absolute injustice…” Hovdey, Jay. "The California Thoroughbred Trainers Honor Mel and Warren Stute" Edwin J. Gregson Foundation, April 21, 2003. https://gregsonfoundation.com/mel-warren-stute-honored/
"an individual who has..." No author listed. "Stute Brothers Named Pincay Award Winners" Blood-Horse, June 24, 2006. bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/164700/stute-brothers-named-pincay-award-winners