Dutrow may not be what racing's old guard hoped for, but he's the only hope the sport has
NEW YORK -- Rick Dutrow's world begins and ends at the racetrack.
The trainer's muscular bay colt, Big Brown, is the talk of the town heading into the weekend, and their bid to grab thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown in 30 years is generating headlines around the globe. But Dutrow breezily admits he knows next to nothing about anything else in the newspapers, whether it's presidential politics or the fast-fading hometown Yankees.
He doesn't possess fellow trainer Bob Baffert's genius for comedy or D. Wayne Lukas' regal demeanor, nor even Barclay Tagg's endearing grumpiness. But if you're looking for someone who embodies the sport's highs and lows, its compassionate instincts and wretched excesses, its win-or-go-home outlook on life, no one is more authentic.
The son and namesake of longtime Maryland trainer Dick Dutrow literally grew up on a racetrack, and when Dutrow, now 48, crawled back into the business both homeless and nearly horseless following a five-year suspension for personal drug use, he moved into a tack room at Aqueduct Racetrack with a TV set, refrigerator and microwave and slept on a cot. Today, Dutrow has the best horse in the industry, money burning a hole in his pocket and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning as an occasional dinner companion.
But he still watches sitcoms to exhaustion, and other than suits on race days, his wardrobe could be charitably described as frat-boy casual: ballcaps, polo shirt -- untucked -- jeans and deck shoes. Quiet he's not. Opinionated doesn't do him justice.
Standing on the verge of history Thursday morning, Dutrow couldn't even recall the name of his first winner, though he did remember not liking the owner very much.
"He's pretty open and vocal about his feelings on a day-to-day basis, and he obviously talks too much at times," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who has sent a few horses Dutrow's way. "Well, that's Rick being Rick. That's just his personality.
"The public likes honesty, and he's about as honest as they come," Torre added. "A lot of times when we look to criticize or punish people, we don't take into consideration some of the background that connects the dots."
Indeed, Dutrow's checkered past, nonstop boasting and fast-buck owners are hardly the stuff that racing's old guard had in mind for the person who would break a Triple Crown drought stretching back to Affirmed in 1978.
"I think it's funny. I don't have a problem with it," Baffert said, "and so far, neither does most of the public. He's coming at it with the opinion of a gambler or handicapper and all he's really saying is, 'Look, this horse is so good that all I have to do is stay out of the way.' And he's already convinced most of the trainers and jocks of that. ...
"Where I think he's gotten himself into trouble is with some of the things he's said about Big Brown's competition. To some of those people," Baffert added, chuckling, "saying bad things about their horses is like talking bad about their children."
But it's not quite that simple.
Dutrow's name turned up 72 times in a database maintained by the Association of Racing Commissioners International for offenses ranging from silly to serious in a half-dozen venues from New York to California. Only one of those incidents was judged bad enough to merit a 60-day suspension, though Dutrow has been fined or given shorter suspensions for doping horses at least once every year from 2000 through 2007. His former girlfriend and mother of his daughter Molly, now 13, was murdered in a drug-related break-in. Around that time, his father severed their relationship and then lost a battle with cancer in 1999.
Dutrow denies ever purposely doping his horses and doesn't hide from the rest of it.
"What I've done," he said in the days leading up to the Preakness, "I don't have any problems talking about."
But Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame trainer who knew Dutrow's father and has become a mentor to the son, said critics have taken advantage of Dutrow's candor and accessibility to bash him unfairly. He's not surprised, either, in a game where jealousy runs rampant that some of Dutrow's rivals have gleefully helped fuel the fire.
"If he was losing, nobody would be talking about this at all. And Rick has made enemies because he's rubbing people's faces in it, in what a great horse he has. But I'd be excited, too, if I came into a horse this special at his age," Frankel said.
"But the papers turn around and make it sound like he's drugging his horses all the time, maybe because he came out of the claiming ranks, where a lot of people play the game differently. So they just assume Rick does. But I'd give him a horse in a heartbeat because he cares about them and he takes care of them that way."
Dutrow's reputation among his peers runs closer to the public's perception than that of racing's establishment. Baffert sees a guy whose view of the world rises and falls based on nothing more complicated than the quality of the horses in his barn. He had heard plenty about Dutrow's brash personality but didn't experience it firsthand until his colt, Midnight Lute, was slated to run against Dutrow's Benny the Bull last September in the Forego Stakes at Saratoga.
"Well, Midnight Lute wound up beating him by two lengths or so and the third-place horse was almost 10 lengths behind those two. I was walking down the stairs and he stopped me, stuck out his hand and just said, 'Bob, I'm Rick Dutrow, and man, that's a good horse you've got there.'
"There weren't any cameras around, and to me that was very real. And if Casino Drive or some other horse ran off and beat him Saturday," said Baffert, who lost Triple Crown tries three times between 1997 and 2002, "I'm pretty sure he'd do the same.
"You could tell the guy just loves his horses. They're his life."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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