July 16, 2024

Underrated Ferdinand-Snow Chief rivalry was golden

December 26 marked the 30th anniversary of a clash between Ferdinand and Snow Chief in the Malibu (G2) on opening day of Santa Anita’s 1986-87 winter/spring meet. It was the fifth of nine meetings between the two California-based colts who had accounted for two-thirds of the 1986 Triple Crown, and both entered the seven-furlong test off long layoffs.

Sidelined since early July following surgery to remove a bone chip, Snow Chief was a solid 7-5 favorite in the Malibu. Not only had he beaten Ferdinand in three of their four prior meetings, but his rival, a long-striding galloper by Nijinsky II, figured to be better suited to the longer races of the 1987 Strub Series for four-year-olds — the nine-furlong San Fernando (G1) and 10-furlong Charles H. Strub (G1) — as well as the Santa Anita H. (G1), also over a mile and a quarter.

Bettors that took the 4-1 offered on the Kentucky Derby (G1)-winning Ferdinand, who had not run since a third-place effort in the Belmont S. (G1) in June, enjoyed a belated Christmas present. While Snow Chief was bumped leaving the gate and then raced close to a hot pace of :22 2/5 and :44 4/5, Ferdinand broke cleanly from post 11 and bided his time in the second tier.

Seizing control in upper stretch and opening up a 1 1/2-length advantage after six furlongs in 1:09, Snow Chief was where fans expected him to be. But Ferdinand had steadily improved his position under Bill Shoemaker throughout the race and, by this point, had a fresher set of legs than his nearly-black rival. Ferdinand zoomed by late and kicked off the Strub Series with a 1 1/4-length victory.

Though the pair had split their four meetings that year, Snow Chief was named champion three-year-old colt. Ferdinand’s only wins had come in the Derby and Malibu, while Snow Chief had racked up six stakes victories, including the Preakness (G1), Florida Derby (G1), Santa Anita Derby (G1), Jersey Derby (G2), and El Camino Real Derby (G3).

The long rivalry between Ferdinand and Snow Chief must be considered one of the more underrated in modern racing history. Overshadowed a bit by the battles involving Alysheba-Bet Twice and Sunday Silence-Easy Goer later in the decade, it mirrors another less-remembered rivalry between Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint, which I’ve written of previously, in one respect. By virtue of more significant career victories and titles, Ferdinand, like Riva Ridge, is remembered more today than his erstwhile rival, who on paper was just as good if not better.

Snow Chief, a California-bred son of Reflected Glory trained by Mel Stute, was the more precocious of the two. A debut winner going five furlongs in June of his two-year-old year, Snow Chief had already won three of seven stakes appearances, including the Norfolk (G1), before his initial encounter with Ferdinand in the Hollywood Futurity (G1). Neither was favored in the one-mile heat, but clearly more was expected of Snow Chief, who started at odds of just under 3-1 while sporting blinkers for the first time.

Ferdinand, born and raised at Claiborne Farm for Mr. and Mrs. Howard Keck, was trained by Charlie Whittingham and started at 34-1 in the Futurity following a 2 1/4-length maiden win in his fourth start. Snow Chief stamped himself as a leading Kentucky Derby prospect with 6 1/2-length romp, while Ferdinand rallied up the inside for third after a slow beginning.

Snow Chief continued his winning ways at Bay Meadows, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita into the new year, with a six-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby solidifying his status as the Kentucky Derby favorite. Ferdinand, who had one restricted stakes win among his first three outings of the season, was third, seven lengths behind Snow Chief, in their final prep for the Churchill Downs classic.

As it often does, the Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance separated the men from the boys. Snow Chief was the 2-1 choice against 15 rivals, but his front-running style and relative concerns about his pedigree (Reflected Glory won as far as the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo at Hialeah, while Snow Chief’s female side was of modest accomplishment) suggested 10 furlongs might not be in his wheelhouse. Hurt in part by racing close to a hot pace set by future champion sprinter Groovy, Snow Chief faded to 11th while Ferdinand, under a brilliant ride by the 54-year-old Shoemaker, slipped through an opening at the rail in upper stretch and drove home a 2 1/4-length winner.

Obviously disappointed with his colt’s effort and ready to take him back to California to recoup, Stute was talked into sending his colt to Baltimore for the Preakness by Whittingham, who eventually regretted that friendly piece of advice. Chasing Groovy again but through a more manageable pace, Snow Chief got the jump on Ferdinand and the rest, ultimately posting a four-length victory over the Derby winner in a race neither was favored in.

Nine days after the Preakness, Snow Chief swooped into Garden State Park and, like Spend a Buck the year before, landed the lucrative Jersey Derby, a $1 million race at the time that was worth more monetarily than any of the three Triple Crown events. His two-length victory, achieved over Grade 1 winner Mogambo and juvenile champion Tasso, also showed his ability to win over 1 1/4 miles under the right circumstances. Ferdinand, meanwhile, moved on to Belmont Park and was a non-threatening third to Danzig Connection, the last of trainer Woody Stephens’ five consecutive winners in the “Test of the Champion.”

The Ferdinand-Snow Chief rivalry, revived in the Malibu, continued the following month in the San Fernando. Favored at 9-10, Snow Chief stumbled at the start, dueled on the lead, and weakened to third while Ferdinand encountered a bit of trouble in finishing fourth.

Arguably the most exciting battle in their long rivalry came in the Charles H. Strub in February. Setting an honest pace throughout the 10-furlong showdown, Snow Chief was under constant pressure from Ferdinand during the final quarter-mile and just lasted by a nose despite receiving a hard bump from Ferdinand a few strides before the wire.

“About three jumps from the finish wire, he was bumped from behind and lost his momentum,” jockey Pat Valenzuela, aboard Snow Chief, told United Press International. “I thought Ferdinand came in on me.”

The penultimate meeting between the two occurred in the Big ‘Cap. While Ferdinand just failed to hold off Broad Brush in one of the most thrilling finishes in race history, Snow Chief again fell victim to an early pace duel through fast splits, fading to fifth.

Following a third-place finish at odds-on in the 1 1/4-mile Gulfstream Park H. (G1), Snow Chief rebounded to take the Oaklawn H. (G1) in track-record time of 1:46 3/5. Meanwhile, the string of losses for Ferdinand continued in the San Luis Rey (G1) and John Henry H. (G1), two grass experiments Whittingham tried, presumably, due to Ferdinand’s patriarchal line (Nijinsky II-Northern Dancer).

The final ever meeting between the two-combatants occurred in the Californian (G1) at Hollywood Park, a nine-furlong prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1). Neither were at their best as the Whittingham-trained Judge Angelucci prevailed, with Snow Chief a length behind in third and Ferdinand fourth.

A tendon injury discovered after the Californian put an end to Snow Chief’s career. With that rival out of the way, and with attrition in the rest of the division, Ferdinand finished out the season with four consecutive wins: the Hollywood Gold Cup, the $125,000 Cabrillo H. at Del Mar, the Goodwood H. (G3), and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in an epic stretch battle with Alysheba.

Saving his best for the end of a long, protracted season, Ferdinand was able to secure champion older male honors and narrowly prevailed in the Horse of the Year race over champion turf male Theatrical. Ferdinand won a mere 38 percent of the popular vote in the Horse of the Year balloting and, in the voting process in place at the time, carried the required two of three voting blocs by a single vote.

As the first Kentucky Derby winner to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and with a Horse of the Year trophy to his credit, Ferdinand has emerged as the more notable contestant in the rivalry with Snow Chief despite the latter’s divisional championship at three and 6-3 edge head-to-head.

Sadly, Ferdinand is also remembered for his ultimate fate, in a Japanese slaughterhouse, sometime in 2002. That story, which began to emerge in the summer 2003, eventually led to protocols being enacted whereby former U.S. racing stars are, with the help of past owners and/or other interested parties, available to be returned to their homeland after their stud services in Japan are no longer needed.

Snow Chief, who stood in his home state of California throughout his stud career, died at the age of 27 in 2010 on the 24th anniversary of his Preakness victory.