For years, Dick Dutrow virtually owned the winner's circle at Laurel Park.
But yesterday, surrounded by family and friends, he embraced the enclosure like it was a completely new experience.
With one decisive chirp by jockey Julie Krone, Lite The Fuse, the horse that Dutrow considers the finest he has ever trained, swept past tiring front-runners Commanche Trail and Exclusive Praline on the turn and rolled to a two-length victory in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.
The bettors loved the horse. At 3-5 odds, the 4-year-old colt who had been a Grade I winner in New York, was the shortest-priced favorite to go postward in six runnings of Maryland's richest sprint and returned $3.20, the Dash's smallest winning payoff.
But when Lite The Fuse was played in the exotics with California and Midwest long shots, who finished second and third, the prices were much more lucrative.
Crafty Dude, a lightly raced West Coast horse who has a mile-long history of illnesses and injuries, rallied four horses wide at the top of the stretch and finished second at 11-1 odds. Midwest invader Hot Jaws, surprisingly overlooked as a 17-1 shot, overcame being blocked twice at the head of the stretch and finished third, a nose in front of Maryland-bred Goldminer's Dream. The exacta paid $38.80 and the triple paid $298.60.
Final time for the six furlongs was 1 minute, 8 4/5 seconds, a fifth of a second off the stakes mark held jointly by 1993 Dash winner Montbrook and Housebuster, who won in 1991.
The race was run in 97-degree heat, weather so hot that nine horses were scratched throughout the day on the Dash undercard.
"Winning this $180,000 is the biggest thing that has happened to me in my life," an emotional Dutrow said. "Why? Because I've bred, owned and trained him. It's as simple as that."
But the Dash victory also has thrust Dutrow back into the national limelight.
In the mid-1970s, Dutrow six times led the Laurel training standings and in 1975 set a then national record of saddling 352 winners in one year. He left Maryland in 1984 to try his hand in the big leagues of New York racing, but after some initial success, has recently fallen on hard times. The trainer who once had an 80-horse Maryland string, now has only a dozen runners, although Lite The Fuse is re-drawing attention to Dutrow's training prowess.
Yesterday, Lite The Fuse was slowest to break from the gate in the seven-horse Dash field.
"I would have been concerned, except he always does that," Dutrow said. "He plants himself in the gate, and he's so strong, you can't move him. He's never really popped out of there. That's OK in these short fields. But in a 14-horse field in the Breeders' Cup [Sprint], it's going to be a bigger disadvantage."
Dutrow said that he didn't give Krone, who has ridden Lite The Fuse in all but one of his career starts, specific instructions. "I just told her to ride the race as it unfolded," Dutrow said.
When Lite the Fuse broke sideways and sluggishly, Krone was outrun early by Commanche Trail, who jetted to the lead. Krone, however, stayed on the rail and had moved up to third by the time the field reached the turn.
"I chirped to him at the three-eighths pole and then after that, he ran like a dream," Krone said.
She angled Lite The Fuse to the outside of pacesetters Commanche Trail and Exclusive Praline, who had raced the first half mile in a rapid 44 2/5 seconds, and moved to the lead at the top of the stretch. After that, the outcome was never in doubt.
Dutrow said he plans to run Lite The Fuse in the Forego Handicap at Saratoga next month, the Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park and then the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont on Oct. 28.
Yesterday's Dash crowd of 12,185 at the Maryland outlets was the smallest in the race's history. But overall handle of $3.7 million, including simulcasts, is the largest in the race's six-year run.