Two California Cronies Find a Place in the Sun with Derby Favorite Snow Chief

updated 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is a balmy California afternoon, and two old birds who like to call themselves the Sunshine Boys are in their box at Santa Anita, watching the ponies circle the track and rehashing the conversation that brought them into confederacy. The one in the bolo tie and cardigan is a horse merchant, Carl Grinstead. The other, Hollywood casual in his expensive sports coat and sleek Italian loafers, is Ben Rochelle, a onetime vaudevillian and inveterate handicapper. "It was two years ago, right in this box," remembers Ben. "I says, 'Carl, you know all those horses I've had a piece of, I've never been able to make enough-purse money to pay for their keep.' He says, 'You know, Ben, eight out of 10 horses never get to run a race. Now I've got this horse called Sari's Dreamer that looks pretty good.' I says, 'How good?' He says, 'Real good.' I says, 'Well, I'll tell you what. Why don't I buy half of your horse.' He says, 'No, I won't sell you half of my horse. I'll sell you half of my whole stable.' I says, 'Holy smoke! How much money do you think I've got?' He says, 'I'll give you a good deal.' "

And he did. Three weeks after Ben and Carl became partners, Sari's Dreamer won $95,000 at Hollywood Park. Now a little dark bay colt out of the Sunshine Boys' stable is favored to become the first California-bred horse in nearly 25 years to win the Kentucky Derby. Snow Chief. Mark the name, and watch him run for the roses this Saturday. "It's been a real Cinderella story," says Ben.

So it has, for both men came up during the Depression, when fairy godmothers were in short supply. "I'm originally from Kansas," says Carl, 70. "I went to the University of Cincinnati and studied electrical engineering. My last two years were graduate work with General Motors on a fellowship, which during the Depression was unheard of. They paid for everything, plus they gave me $250 a month." Carl worked for GM until the war, after which he and a friend lit out for the Coast. "We opened an instrument manufacturing business and hit California just as the missile business was starting out," he says. "By the time we sold the company, our customers were North American Rocket-dyne, NASA and Boeing." When his partner died, Grinstead, who had always followed the nags, put up $10,000 and bought part of a 2-year-old named Eventually. "In about six months, we'd doubled our money," he says. "I said, 'Gee, where have I been all my life?' "

In 1960 Carl bought a ranch near Chula Vista, seven miles from the Mexican border, and began to train and breed horses. "Ever since I started putting money into horseracing, I made quite a study of it," he says. Most people in the business were raised on the track, and a lot of our trainers weren't formally educated. I knew if I read enough, observed enough and asked enough questions, I could learn." Throwing himself into the study of bloodlines, Carl and his wife, Pearl, ran the ranch until 11 years ago, when they decided to sell everything, planning to travel. But an auction brought disappointing prices, and Carl, dismayed by the bidding, bought back some of his best horses and continued to struggle along. Two years ago he joined up with Ben Rochelle.

For his part, Rochelle, 75, has no illusions about being a horseman. He's a bettor, pure and simple. "Wherever my wife and I were playing—Chicago, Philly, Boston—I'd always find a bookmaker," he says. "You didn't have to be at the track to find one in those days. Sometimes I'd see Joe Frisco, and he'd say, 'I've got a good horse. You want to go dollar for dollar with me?' You know how it is when you start betting horses. It's almost like dope. It gravitates you to the window."

Originally from St. Louis, Rochelle grew up in L.A. and went to Hollywood High. "Motion picture musicals were just beginning to come in," he remembers. "The Depression was on, and in order to make $50 a week, which is what film companies paid, I shelled out 25 cents an hour for dancing lessons. I worked with people like Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward. I danced with Marion Davies when she was William Randolph Hearst's mistress. I did an Irish jig in the movie that he produced for her, Peg O' My Heart."

Ben met his wife, Jane Beebe, in 1935. A former child star, Janie was, according to Ben, "a great comedienne on the order of Martha Raye. She satirized different kinds of dancing, so we worked up this comedy ballroom routine where I would be wearing tails and she'd be wearing a beautiful evening gown. We'd dance seriously onstage for maybe 15 seconds, then all of a sudden, she would flip me over her head. The audience would scream with laughter. We weren't stars by any means, but we were a strong supporting act. We played all the big theaters. Then we were on The Ed Sullivan Show. After that I thought to myself, 'Holy smoke! We played to more people in that 15 minutes with Sullivan than we could have in three years playing in houses all over the country.' I says to Janie, 'You know, we're getting out of this business because we're all washed up. Our act is no longer a novelty.' Then I gravitated toward real estate development. I was fortunate. The timing was right; the year was 1952. I kept buying up land and building hotels and apartments houses and mobile home parks, and I wound up being quite successful."

Then, suddenly, there was no one to share it with. Janie died three years ago, leaving Ben all alone. "When you lose your mate of 40 years," he says, "life is tough, very tough." Shortly thereafter, Ben went into partnership with Carl.

It is later in the afternoon, and the Sunshine Boys are holding court for their horse-betting cronies. The full panorama of the San Gabriel Mountains is laid out before them. The conversation turns to Snow Chief's lineage, which is dubious. The Derby favorite, in fact, is the offspring of an undistinguished dam and a stallion with a paltry $2,000 stud fee. Grinstead, though, maintains that Snow Chief's ancestral bloodlines are sound and scoffs at talk that the front-running Snow Chief has peaked too soon. "Let me straighten you out on peaking horses," he says. "No one knows when a horse has peaked."

Well, how about Ben? Has he peaked? Carl smiles. "He's a nice partner. The only complaint I have is that the success has kind of gone to his head. He's back in show business again with all the people applauding him. Applause, cheers, that's what show people live for. Plus the money, of course."

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