Big mouth

If `Brown' wins Triple Crown, trainer can proclaim: Really, I told you so

On Rick Dutrow

June 07, 2008|By RICK MAESE

Elmont, N.Y. -- At Churchill Downs, the black limo was completely out of place amid the pickups and ponies along the backstretch. It was parked outside the barn last month, and Big Brown's connections emerged. The horse's owner wore a dark blazer and Versace sunglasses, his eyes focused on a glowing cell phone as he indifferently answered reporters' questions.

At Pimlico Race Course, arriving from Kentucky 10 days later, Big Brown was nearly two hours late to the track and the last horse to exit the trailer. He could've come straight from the set of Entourage as he casually strolled to the barn, belatedly satisfying the camera-toting journalists-turned-paparazzi.

And at Belmont Park, officially signed now as poster boy for UPS and Hooters, Big Brown was relatively quiet leading up to today's Belmont Stakes. Lucky for him, his trainer talked enough for the both of them.

Thankfully, the Belmont Stakes has finally arrived. These past several weeks, even as his bluster and bravado were aimed at illuminating his horse's brilliance, Rick Dutrow's immodesty came to overshadow it.

In case you haven't paid much attention since Big Brown cruised to victory at the Preakness, here's an abridged version of the Tao of Dutrow:

"I feel as confident as I ever have with the horse. He looks better now than he ever looked." So he'll win? "No one is going to catch him. I can't wait." The Triple Crown, in fact, is a "foregone conclusion." And it might not even be close. "If he ever gets the lead in the Belmont, the race is going to be over." So, does anyone have a chance? "Forget about it. There's no way in the world there's any horse that's doing any better than Big Brown. It's impossible."

Whew. Take a second. Catch your breath. And let's mourn the passing of humility. She was a noble concept, to be sure, underappreciated yet quietly prized. She's nowhere to be found around today's race, which would provide the final jewel in Big Brown's Triple Crown. A win shouldn't surprise many. Dutrow has poured a stiff cocktail of prophecy and pomposity to anyone within earshot.

"I have been trying to be humble and modest," Dutrow says, "but the horse is just throwing up so many different signs. ... I do not feel like I have been talking real big. I feel I have been talking facts."

So did Joe Namath. So does every guy wearing overpriced sneakers on a basketball court. So do 95 percent of the NFL wide receivers.

But you can be confident in your skills and hopeful for your prospects without making our ears bleed. We're a people who root for underdogs, not braggarts; who appreciate optimism more than arrogance; and who realize that the line separating hot air and a cool head isn't especially thin.

To make cheering the Triple Crown easier today, it might help to separate handlers from horse: Dutrow is the talk; Big Brown the walk.

"I don't think anyone's as confident as Rick," Big Brown owner Michael Iavarone says. "About anything. I don't think Muhammad Ali was that confident."

Except Ali had to actually step in the ring. Dutrow is more like Don King, perfectly content to deliver promises and predictions from the sideline. He's a great character, to be sure, his humor and observations playing on an endless loop.

To be fair, it's not as if any of us are exactly plugging our ears when Dutrow opens his mouth. We know he'll take the cheese.

"They would say, `Rick, are you going to win?' I would say, `Yeah, we are going to win the race,'" Dutrow says. "So the next day it is in big, black, `I cannot lose!'"

Dutrow didn't slow down yesterday. He leaked that something might be amiss with Casino Drive, considered to be Big Brown's top challenger. Plus, he found time to question the training tactics of Casino Drive's Japanese handlers. Quipped Casino Drive's stable manager, Nobutaka Tada: "I'm enjoying listening to his comments. It sounds like he knows my horse more than us."

In fact, Tada maintained a gracious smile all week, even when he was delivering the bad news that his horse suffered an apparent bruise on his hoof, jeopardizing Casino Drive's chances today. Asked whether he can still win the Belmont, Tada seemed taken aback. "I've never said that I can win the Belmont Stakes. I'd like to win, but I don't know if he can win or not. We are trying our best."

That's not a difference in culture and maybe not even confidence. It's matter of comportment - one man humbled at opportunity and the other emboldened by prosperity.

Earlier this week, a crew of Hooters girls stopped by the barn, each decked out in a skimpy work uniform. Big Brown walked up from behind, poked his head over their shoulders and stood as still as a statue for a cameraman.

The trainer cracked a smile. He just couldn't help himself.

"I thought, man, I wish I was him."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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