It's all looking like roses

Big Brown's trainer shrugs off bad years, exudes confidence

May 03, 2008|By Rick Maese and Sandra McKee | Rick Maese and Sandra McKee,Sun reporters

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every word Rick Dutrow has spoken this week has passed through a smile. "It's all good, babe," he keeps saying, urging anyone who will listen to lay money on his horse.

Around the track, where every railbird is starved for a tip, a grin is usually intended as either a shield or a diversion. Dutrow couldn't fake this smile, though. He knows how improbable the journey has been, beginning as a child in Hagerstown, getting in trouble on Maryland tracks and culminating today in the 134th Kentucky Derby, where Dutrow's colt Big Brown is the favorite.

In between, Dutrow has packed enough living to fuel a daytime soap, to keep an afternoon talk-show host busy and to ensure that a few therapists drive nice cars. Partying, drugs and gambling are the just start of it.

A falling-out with his father, a famed Maryland horseman in his own right, was never resolved. The mother of his daughter was murdered. Multiple suspensions. And somehow Dutrow went from living in a New York barn to starting perhaps the best bet in today's 20-horse field.

"It's all good, babe," he keeps saying.

And they keep asking him questions, keep hoping for answers. But how do you explain it?

"I don't think I'm a person you look to for guidance - don't do this, don't do that," says Dutrow, 48. "The only thing I need is to be around my horses. ... When I leave the barn, trouble starts."

In the blood

He was born into the game. Dutrow's father, Dickie Dutrow, was one of the area's top trainers in the 1970s and early '80s, working out of Laurel and Pimlico. In 1975, he posted 352 wins, a record at the time, and became the first Maryland trainer since 1917 to top the national rankings for wins.

"He was a good trainer, and he knew it," says trainer King Leatherbury, who battled Dutrow for Maryland bragging rights for years. "He wasn't shy about it. ... You might call him a little cocky, but in a friendly way. I remember one time, I was slow getting started in a particular meet, he saw me and shouts out, `Hey, you still here? Figured you'd left.'"

Everyone in racing knew Dickie - he even ran a stable of horses for Orioles' owner Peter G. Angelos - and in turn, everyone knew his three sons, Tony, Ricky and Chip, who treated the track as their playground.

Rick Dutrow was the middle son, and while all three boys would help their dad in the barn, he was the most likely to wander off and find trouble. But all three boys were addicted to the track and all three dropped out of Atholton High when they reached 16, which pained their mother but delighted Dickie.

"He didn't know anything about school. It was different in those days," says Tony Dutrow, now a trainer in Philadelphia. "We saw the success our father was enjoying and there was no doubts in our minds that we could do the same thing. School felt like something that was just in our way, as stupid as that sounds."

In 1984, Rick Dutrow convinced his father to move his operations to New York, where there was more money to be made. And he did find plenty of success before returning to Maryland in 1997.

"I think I've done everything I can do up here," he told The Sun at the time. "I've served my term. Now I think it's time to go back and enjoy the rest of my life."

By that point, Dickie had become frustrated with his middle son, his work habits and his lifestyle, which seemed to focus more on gambling, women and partying than horses.

"Dickie thought Ricky was one of the greatest horsemen around. Period," says Mark Reid, who learned the ropes from Dickie in the 1970s and is a friend of his son. "He knew Ricky could get the most out of a horse, which is why it was so frustrating for Dickie. Dickie was the hard-working, no-nonsense, taskmaster-type. Ricky was the rebellious wild child."

Father and son reached a stalemate, both too proud to bridge their differences. One man all work, the other all play.

"My dad didn't teach us about fun," Dutrow says. "He taught us the work ethic. He worked every day; even Christmas Day he was at the barn. Every day he was out there pitching. He never said, `Go have some fun.'"

At odds with his father, Ricky Dutrow stayed behind in New York, convinced his career was about to take off.

"I didn't want to go back to Maryland with my dad," he said. "I figured that was a dead scene."

Trouble with drugs

Aside from having little money and more vices to indulge than horses to train, Dutrow did himself few favors. Over the years, he has been suspended because both he and his horses have tested positive for drugs.

The last suspension came in 2005. Dutrow insists his horses are clean, though whispers follow him from track to track. "I've had so many different suspensions," he says. "Half of them I deserved. Half of them I didn't."

In those days, he was using marijuana and cocaine and saw few bets that weren't worth taking.

"I don't know what was going through my mind at the time on stuff. I know it wasn't working right," he said this week. "I'm still trying to keep my mind working the right way."

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