Ten years. If Rick Dutrow’s suspension ended today, it would mean the last time we saw him training horses was the year Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness. That’s a lot of racing and a lot of years gone by. When Dutrow does return, assuming he has exhausted all avenues and finally capitulates, he’ll be 64.
There have been a number of precedents set in all aspects of the racing industry, but perhaps none quite as dramatic as Dutrow’s 10-year suspension, considering that in the past, 60 days was considered a long ban, and those were pretty rare.
His ban, it has been said, is more cumulative than based on any one or two infractions. Who knows to what extent Dutrow is guiltier than other trainers in bending and sometimes breaking the rules. But throughout his whole life, he’s been the kid who always gets caught with his hands in the cookie jar.
Whether you believe the 10 years is warranted or not, the real shame of it all is that the sport will lose an outstanding trainer and horseman, who connected with his horses like few others and had a rare affection for them. He literally became giddy when he talked about them. Anyone who has ever listened to him discuss his horses will tell you there was something very childlike in his feelings toward them.
That doesn’t excuse having disregard for rules and regulations, but I have no idea what went on in the Dutrow barn over the years, so there is no way I can say he’s innocent of this or guilty of that or whether he is simply a scapegoat in a sport desperately looking to improve its image. Once his suspension is enforced, with no other options, it becomes irrelevant. There is nothing he or anyone else can do about it. Perhaps in the course of time his “sentence” will be reduced.
It is apparent that Dutrow was no angel if one looks at his “rap sheet.” Some of the infractions involved the use of medication, while many of them just were minor misdeeds that did not apply to racing performance. To the powers that be, and in Dutrow’s case those powers reached higher levels of authority, all these infractions added up over the years. Who really knows if the impetus for all this was someone simply having it out for him or whether it was a case of enough is enough.
It must be noted, however, that racing’s normal governing bodies -- stewards and racing commissions -- have been criticized for administering mere slaps on the wrist for major violations and for making a mockery of suspensions, which amounted to nothing more than a vacation for the perpetrators.
But this column is not about Dutrow’s infractions or right and wrong or whether you find him a lovable rascal or a serial transgressor. All the infractions aside, there has to be a sense of loss, regardless of how one perceived his actions.
Most people in racing had raised eyebrows over Dutrow’s amazing run of victories, especially in major stakes, in the mid-2000s, but there was never any proof that his horses were “juiced.” That will forever remain open to speculation.
As a writer, I can only make judgments and comment on what has already been proven as fact. Yes, Dutrow has had medication positives and other infractions, and those cannot be condoned, whether he was made a scapegoat or not. But also as a writer I have to go by what I witness with my own eyes.
On a personal level, there are always going to be people you like and people you don’t like. Many do not like Dutrow because of the poor filtering mechanism between his brain and his mouth. His thoughts, no matter how outrageous, come spewing forth with no line of defense to stop or temper them before they can cause any damage.
Such was the case with Big brown when he announced to the world before the Belmont Stakes that the colt had been on steroids. Even though steroids (Winstrol) were not illegal and many horses, including well-known stakes horses, were on them, it was Dutrow and only Dutrow who uttered the dirty word in public, informing everyone that Big Brown was now off Winstrol.
And then there were the comments he made before the Belmont about his main rival, the Japanese invader Casino Drive.
“I got a chance to see him coming on the track when we were going off,” Dutrow said. “Someone pointed out the horse to me and I watched him run and saw him in person. He can't beat Big Brown. There's no way in the world he can beat Big Brown. I’m not worried about that horse anymore. I heard the clockers didn't understand what the hell they were trying to do with the horse. He is another horse in the race. Big Brown is going to have to school him like he has every other horse he has ever run against. It's going to be simple.”
Yes, it was a brazen comment, although Casino Drive did suffer a bruised foot the day before the Belmont and was scratched.
But there is another Rick Dutrow that most people have never seen, and it is that person that makes it difficult to accept the fact he will not be around what he loves the most in life – horses. That, as mentioned earlier, is the real shame of it all.
When I think of Dutrow, it’s hard not to see the person who returned to his barn following Big Brown’s victory in the Kentucky Derby and headed straight to the colt’s stall.
“Where is he?” Dutrow asked rhetorically, as if about to greet a long lost friend. “You are the freakin’ man,” he said to Big Brown as he entered the stall. He gave the colt about a dozen affectionate smacks on the neck and then wrapped his arms tightly around his neck for about 30 seconds, as if unable or unwilling to let go. Big Brown never moved as he rested his head on Dutrow’s shoulder.
This was the Rick Dutrow who easily becomes humbled by the equine gifts that have been bestowed upon him.
When Dutrow finally did let go, he noticed something he had never seen before from Big Brown.
“He’s tired,” Dutrow said incredulously. “Look at my boy.” Then directing his attention to the horse, he said, “I finally got you. I finally got you tired. Look at my little buddy. You kicked their ass, Brown.”
It was this Rick Dutrow who stood out on the track, emotionally drained, waiting for Saint Liam to return following his victory three years earlier in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He couldn’t stop laughing, sounding like a giddy child opening presents on Christmas morning. One second he was letting out screams of joy and the next he was shaking his head in disbelief and trying to hold back tears.
When Saint Liam returned, Dutrow began applauding his horse, knowing this was the last race of his career. “Oh, my God,” he kept repeating. “I can’t explain the feeling. He gives me a feeling I’ve never had before. I owe him everything. He is my boy. I see him every night before I go to bed. And I’m going to miss him so much. Words just can’t describe this horse.”
Perhaps these feelings emerged with such fervor because Dutrow realized what he had to overcome to get there. Many of the hardships he endured were brought on by his need to live life on the edge. That resulted in scrapes with the law for petty crimes in his younger days and substance abuse, all of which led him to a life of despair, with no money for food and having to live out of a tack room at Aqueduct. He was lucky to get to train one horse. He also suffered through the murder of his daughter’s mother and the death of his father, trainer Dick Dutrow Sr.
The elder Dutrow never forgave Rick for wasting his God-given talents, even to the day he died.
“My dad knew Rick was talented,” Dutrow’s brother, Tony, himself a successful trainer, said several years ago “But he never thought he would get anywhere because of his wildness. Ricky was a free spirit from the time he was 13. Everything he’s done in his life has been for the thrill and the excitement. Money doesn’t mean anything to him, believe me. He’d never steal to have more money. He’d steal to see if he could get away with it.”
Several years ago, Dutrow bought a beautiful, sprawling home on Long Island and lived there for years without putting any furniture in it. He couldn’t be bothered by such mundane things.
In the early 2000s, Dutrow hooked up with owner Sandy Goldfarb and the two had great success. Dutrow’s career began to take off, reaching new heights in 2004 when owners began sending him good horses, such as Saint Liam and Offlee Wild. But in 2005, he was slapped with a 60-day suspension, reduced from 120 days for two drug positives and a claiming violation. But the barn continued to flourish and win major races. With success came the accusations that Dutrow was using nefarious methods.
“I don’t pay attention to all the talk,” Dutrow said later that year. “I just try to get the horses there the right way. That’s all I really care about.”
That likely is where his problems began – not paying attention and not caring about anything but his horses and how they perform. He even welcomed the close scrutiny of his barn, insisting he was doing nothing wrong. “We stick to the fundamentals,” he said.
There was no “How to” manual in Dutrow’s training. He did everything by the gut and the horse sense with which he was born. In short, he was a natural.
But in the end, he paid for his indiscretions, whether deserved or not. Many feel racing is for the better not having Dutrow training horses. But as disappointed as his father was in his son wasting his God-given ability, racing and the horses he loved may be even more disappointed. Dutrow is as talented as any trainer in the country. And it is a shame to see those talents come to an end.