LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In some barns on the backside of Churchill Downs, they believe in the Derby gods.
Horsemen will tell you with conviction that the Kentucky Derby is so special it can be won only by good people. They'll tell you the Derby gods keep it that way -- mystically blocking black-hearted owners and malevolent trainers from reaching racing heaven, no matter how talented their horses. I know at least one Derby-winning trainer and one Derby-winning owner who earnestly buy into the concept.
They point out Frances Genter, the little old lady who won the 1990 Derby with Unbridled. They refer to the Sackatoga Six, a group of regular Joes who hit it rich with Funny Cide. They cite gentlemanly Bob Lewis, owner of Silver Charm and Charismatic, and the unpretentious connections of Smarty Jones.
It's hard to believe that in 133 runnings, a few rogues haven't slipped past the Derby gods and into the ultimate winner's circle. But if the believers are right, you have to wonder what the gods are thinking about the man who will saddle morning-line favorite Big Brown on Saturday, trainer Rick Dutrow.
Dutrow has used illicit drugs, on himself and on his horses, and has been suspended for both on multiple occasions. He has come to the cathedral of racing this week with immense pride and a dearth of humility. He has wagered outrageous sums on his animals and bragged about the victories.
But if the gods help those who help themselves, they must be impressed by a guy who a decade ago was sleeping on a cot in a New York racetrack barn. He had no home, no car and very little prospects until he met a waiter with connections at a clam bar in Little Italy. Going from homeless and nearly horseless to the Derby favorite in 10 years takes some guts.
So if Rick Dutrow were Albert Brooks in "Defending Your Life," he would stand before the Derby gods and plead "Nolo contendre, babe." Dutrow calls everyone babe.
The no-contest approach is pretty much the one he has taken this week on the Churchill backside, discussing his checkered career with a disarming willingness. He won't run or hide, and hasn't even tried very hard to dispute or minimize his past transgressions.
On the confessional scale, Dutrow falls somewhere between the bellicose denial of Roger Clemens and the tear-drenched mea culpa of Marion Jones.
"I've had so many different suspensions -- half of them I deserved, half of them I didn't," Dutrow said. "I don't think I'm a person you'd look to for guidance. I can't guide another person and say, 'Hey, you've got to do this,' or 'Hey, you've got to do that.' I'm not that type.
"So the only thing I need is to be allowed to work around the horses, so when they give me back my license after a suspension, man, I'm good to go. And even when I'm on my suspension, I'm going to try and sneak in there and look at my horses. What am I going to tell you, man? I'm a horseman."
He is a horseman with an incredible personal story extending beyond his high crimes and misdemeanors.
In 1998, the high school dropout was living in the tack room of Barn 1 at Aqueduct Race Course, with a couple of cheap claimers right outside in the stalls. Dutrow was there because of a series of unfortunate events, some of which he describes in greater detail than others.
His former girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Molly, had been murdered, Dutrow said. His father, well-regarded Maryland trainer Richard Dutrow Sr., had cancer and would die in 1999. And his personal habits were problematic: He had been suspended for a year in Maryland in the early 1980s for repeatedly being found in possession of marijuana at the track, he was ruled off New York Racing Association tracks for five years after testing positive for marijuana later in the 1980s and he would have his license revoked again for five weeks in 2000 after another positive marijuana test.
"I needed to go through that," Dutrow said of his months in the barn. "I loved every minute of it. I had my microwave, my cot, my fridge, my TV and my horses. That's all I needed."
Said Vinny Marchione, the waiter who would help change Dutrow's fortunes: "He always spoke about being his own worst enemy and getting himself in trouble. He'd say, 'I'm good at the barn. It's when I leave the barn I get in trouble.'"
But Dutrow did leave the barn occasionally to eat at Vincent's Clam Bar in Little Italy, where Marchione befriended him. A former commodities trader on Wall Street who had gone through some tough times of his own, Marchione was into racing. He and Dutrow hit it off, and he wanted to help Dutrow get his career going, so he offered to arrange a meeting with a deep-pockets Wall Street guy named Sandy Goldfarb.
Goldfarb was big into the trotting game and just diversifying into thoroughbreds. Dutrow was dying for an owner who would give him some cash, give him some horses and give him a chance.
"Rick had a flawed past, but he always had talent," Marchione said. "I thought, 'Maybe his other demons are gone.' So I arranged for Rick to meet Sandy."
Goldfarb told Marchione he'd send a limo to pick up Dutrow for dinner. Marchione told Goldfarb to send the limo to Barn 1 at Aqueduct.
"It was hard for me to explain to Sandy that the guy I wanted him to give a million dollars to lives in a barn," Marchione said.
Once the two met, Dutrow took it from there, as he recalled this week.
"What's your angle?" Goldfarb asked him.
"You're looking at it," Dutrow responded.
Goldfarb eventually was sold and started sending Dutrow horses. It's been a blazing ride up the ladder since.
They won a single stakes race together in 2000. In 2001 and 2002, Dutrow was the leading trainer in New York by wins, and Goldfarb was the leading owner. Since then, Dutrow's client base has grown, and his bank account along with it. He has more than 700 wins since 2000, including the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic with Saint Liam and two other Cup victories.
Dutrow said he bet $160,000 on Saint Liam to win in that race, pocketing more than $380,000. He's promised to drop a bomb on Big Brown on Saturday, too, as will the colt's sprawling connections. (More than 100 people are expected in the Big Brown party.)
"He'll be 8-5," Dutrow said, before his colt drew the highly unfavorable No. 20 post.
An 8-5 line was highly unlikely anyway for a horse with three career starts. Even Empire Maker, the much-hyped favorite in 2003, didn't go off at 8-5. He said that virtually the only thing that could keep him from winning the Derby is a bad break out of the gate and insisted that starting gate would not be a factor.
But Dutrow bravado is par for the course. He's been a dreamer since those days sleeping in the tack room.
"I remember him saying, 'One day, boys, I'm going to get myself 20 horses,'" said Randy Sussman, another friend from the lean old days. "Now he's got 120. It's amazing to see what he's done."
But his meteoric rise has not come without controversy. In a sport rife with drug cheats, Dutrow is accused of being one of the worst.
This week, Dutrow talked about "one drug positive four, five, six years ago." But the Association of Racing Commissioners International database paints a much different picture.
Dutrow's ARCI rap sheet contains 72 entries, including fines and suspensions in Maryland, California, New York, Florida, Delaware and New Jersey.
Several of those are for his own personal conduct; many involve marijuana. Others include: an alleged attempt to pass forged checks in Maryland; an attempt to provide a false urine sample "by means of an apparatus concealed on his person"; and a failure to report on a New York license application a 1991 criminal conviction in Nevada.
And he's been fined or suspended at least once every year since 2000 for doping issues. In 2000, a barn search in New York produced "an injectible vitamin which is forbidden." In '01, a horse had excessive Lasix -- an anti-bleeding medication -- in its system. In '02, Dutrow "failed to follow Lasix procedures." In '03, a horse tested positive for Mepivacaine. From '04 through an '08 fine in Florida, there were citations regarding Lasix, Clenbuterol, Phenylbutazone and Oxyphenbutazone.
He served a 60-day suspension in 2005 after two of his horses tested positive for banned substances and for a claiming violation. Then, in 2007, he served an additional 14-day suspension and was fined $25,000 for violating conditions of his suspension by having contact with his stable.
No wonder Ray Paulick, former editor of the Blood-Horse magazine, a leading industry trade publication, wrote earlier in the year: "As a rule, a 2-year-old maiden race on turf at Saratoga (Big Brown's first race) is not the launchpad for the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Rick Dutrow has never been accused of being overly concerned with the rules."
Seemed like a natural question, so I asked it: Why have you broken so many rules?
"Why? I couldn't answer that," Dutrow said. "I know I wasn't working right."
But his horses are running fast these days. And that's all that seems to matter to his owners.
"Some of them were minor offenses," said Richard Schiavo, one of the owners of Big Brown. "I don't think it's something that really concerns us."
It concerns many others in racing. Drug issues have wounded the sport's credibility with its fan base.
Last year, trainer Steve Asmussen came off suspension to run third in the Derby with Curlin and then win the Preakness with him; he's back this year with Pyro. Todd Pletcher, who has two Derby entries, has served a suspension for drugged horses as well. Patrick Biancone, second in the 2004 Derby with Lion Heart, currently is serving a one-year suspension after racing authorities found cobra venom -- which is used to numb horses' feet -- in his Kentucky barn.
So now you have to wonder: Would Rick Dutrow's presence in the Churchill winner's circle Saturday be bad for racing?
"The trouble I've been in shouldn't take anything away from Big Brown," Dutrow said. "I don't see it. I haven't done anything bad around Big Brown ...
"You're here at the Derby. Who would want to do something that isn't right? This is all clean, all good. Anyone who would do something wrong at the Derby, that's not us. That would be despicable.
"We treat the game respectfully."
The Derby gods might get the final say on whether Rick Dutrow has shown the game the proper respect.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.