Commentary

Who's ready for a Dutrow do-over?

Updated: January 29, 2009, 6:22 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Somebody find Rick Dutrow a fresh, dry dress shirt.

Don't say we didn't warn you. It was in this very column space on March 12 last year ("Good vs. Evil Invades the Land of Mrs. Genter"), even before Big Brown took flight in the Florida Derby, that America was put on Rick Dutrow alert and advised of the potential consequences of his Kentucky Derby success.

He came. He saw. He squawked. He conquered.

And he left behind carnage.

Guess what? He's baaaaaaaaaaaaaack.

Last week proved to be an uplifting series of days for the Thoroughbred trainer whom "Pardon The Interruption" co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon argued for as sports' ultimate turkey of 2008. Dutrow's stable grew seriously in 2009 Triple Crown stature in recent days, chiefly because of new faces in the barn named Patena and This Ones For Phil.

Patena made news off the track, coming to the Dutrow barn after IEAH Stable acquired a majority interest in the rising star, who had been based at New Orleans' Fair Grounds with respected trainer Josie Carroll. Meanwhile, This Ones For Phil did his news-making on the track, displaying what can only be described as a colossal leap in performance when dominating last Saturday's Sunshine Millions Dash at Gulfstream Park. The Dash, not coincidentally, was the first start for This Ones For Phil since owner Gil Campbell switched the gelding from Kathleen O'Connell to Team Dutrow. Over the years, horseplayers and fans have seen that meteoric routine many times.

But what's doubly dangerous about the prospect of Patena, particularly, is that there's no telling just how good Dutrow can make this horse. Patena might be the best-bred, most proven horse he's ever had the chance to lay his second-hand hands upon (see: "The Dutrow Projects".) This is not a horse with a sketchy pedigree or questions about which surface he can handle. He's not damaged goods with tender tootsies that demand more attention than a needy girlfriend.

Patena already was a top 10 Kentucky Derby contender in many polls, including my weekly ESPN.com ratings in "Countdown to the Crown." With Dutrow at the controls, he becomes legitimate top-five material to anyone with a Racing Form and a Derby jones. The efficient-striding Patena has proven to be as adept on natural dirt as he was on all-weather tracks in Canada, closing stoutly for second in this month's Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, and galloping out strongest of the cast, indicating he wants more distance. Patena is sired by route influence Seeking the Gold and out of the four-time stakes winner Handpainted, who is a daughter of none other than Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, the pre-eminent distance influence in American breeding.

Simply put, Patena has a vastly stronger case as a Triple Crown contender than Big Brown did a year ago at this time. While Big Brown obviously was a brilliant character, his raw ability outshone his deficiencies in experience and pedigree. Patena possesses more of a complete package, though I would not dare argue that he stacks up on the single-race brilliance meter by any stretch vs. his predecessor, Big Brown.

But at this time last year, Big Brown owned only a single career race on the Saratoga turf. He did not make his dirt debut (or 3-year-old debut) until March 5. Patena already has five career starts at five different distances, competing over three types of running surfaces, and has won a stakes race at 1 1/16 miles.

What if the Dutrow magic wand can bring out additional brilliance in Patena?

Given his impeccable pedigree, strong foundation and proven performance over multiple surfaces, the only thing missing for Patena is the "wow" factor. And it's that "wow" factor that Dutrow specializes in. Think of horses like Saint Liam, Kip Deville and Benny The Bull, who went from bit stakes players to breakout superstars and champions for Dutrow.

Patena not only has the chance to become like those types of star runners; he has the bloodlines to exceed them. He might be the best set of genes Dutrow has ever tried on, metaphorically speaking.

Make no mistake, This Ones For Phil also cannot be forgotten in the news cycle. His 117 Beyer speed figure in the Sunshine Millions Dash puts him in a statistical stratosphere almost by himself. Since fig guru Andy Beyer first commissioned his numbers to Daily Racing Form in 1992, no horse this young has ever recorded 117 digits, Beyer wrote in The Washington Post this week.

This Ones For Phil actually is much more the prototype Dutrow project that we've grown accustomed to seeing over the years. Sketchy pedigree, blue-collar running lines and then: whammo! Welcome to stardom, kid. What's crazy-scary about the Dash effort turned in by This Ones For Phil is that the race really was not in his personal "wheel-house." He had been contesting route races around two turns and was shortening to a distance that figured to favor his competition.

But that was his pre-Dutrow form, apparently. Post-Dutrow, we can forget that Phil took three starts to break his maiden against claimers at Calder last summer. We can forget that he previously had twice as many off-the-board stakes finishes (two) as he did stakes wins (one). The all-new This Ones For Phil already has produced a speed figure bigger than Horse of the Year Saint Liam (112) earned in winning the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic.

With This Ones For Phil headed next to the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 28, expect him to be separated from stablemate Patena in the coming months, if possible. Patena is race-ready, as he was preparing for the Risen Star Stakes at the time of his sale, so he should be the first up of the new Dutrow recruits, possibly in the Feb. 14 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Whether you love him or hate him, think he's a cheat or a genius, it's impossible to deny Rick Dutrow can make an impact on a horse race, even after picking post No. 20 for the Kentucky Derby.

Hold on for another bumpy ride.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is part owner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayer.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.