Rick Dutrow can't seem to help himself. Just when he appears almost a sympathetic figure, he says or does something that reminds you of that bully you went to school with. The towel snapper in the locker room, the guy who'd peer over your shoulder to steal answers off your test or elbow you in the ribs in basketball when the ref was looking the other way. That's how some people view Dutrow's approach to horse racing.
I felt sorry for Rick when Big Brown suffered the injury to his foot that caused the Kentucky Derby winner to be pulled out of Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park and the much ballyhooed matchup against reigning Horse of the Year Curlin. It was the contest everyone in racing (and even some casual sports fans) had been looking forward to -- the one that will never happen. Big Brown could have raced again, given some time off to recover from the injury, but his fate had already been sealed when a stud deal was struck earlier in the year with Three Chimneys Farm, guaranteeing his delivery to the breeding shed by the end of the year.
Dutrow was scheduled to go on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference later that day to discuss the injury and Big Brown's retirement, but principal owner Michael Iavarone of IEAH Stable handled the bad news instead. The mouth that roared during the good times of Big Brown's career would be silent when bad news arrived.
Later that afternoon, I understood why Dutrow may have ducked questions from the media. In a telephone interview on the horse racing cable network TVG, a humble and subdued Dutrow got all choked up talking about the talented colt who carried this Peck's Bad Boy of racing to the top of the game this spring. He showed a human side, a quality that didn't come through very often during a Triple Crown campaign when it seemed just as many people were pulling against Big Brown as there were pulling for him. It's probably a side of himself Dutrow would rather keep hidden.
In conversations I've had with other owners who have trusted their horses with this second-generation trainer, I've learned that Dutrow really does have a passion for the animals. He gives them the best of care and mourns when they are injured. He hates to see them lose, often to the point of avoiding racing them in spots where he doesn't think they'll be short odds to win. "He drives me crazy," one Dutrow owner told me. "He won't run them in spots where he doesn't think they'll be the favorite."
By all reports, Dutrow took the bad news about Big Brown very hard. Any trainer in a similar situation might second-guess himself. In Dutrow's case, there were questions about why he worked the colt without shoes on his front feet (the injury was caused when a right rear foot grabbed a chunk of skin from one of his front feet), and why he'd reportedly made recent changes in Big Brown's foot care and farrier work.
But like the school yard bully who shows his human side only briefly, Dutrow got out of his funk and puffed his chest back up. He had other horses in the barn, including Kip Deville, who is scheduled to defend his title in the Breeders' Cup Mile on Saturday. Before putting the Oklahoma-bred horse on a plane for California, he told a reporter: "The hardest part of my job with Kip at this point is figuring how much money I'm going to bet on him to win. I'm counting my money right now."
That's the Rick Dutrow some people love and some others ... well ... don't love. It's the skillful yet arrogant horseman who, just days before Big Brown lost the Triple Crown when pulled up in the stretch of the Belmont, questioned how 2004 Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones was handled by trainer John Servis in the lead-up to that same race. It's the same guy who purposely hid workouts a few years ago on a horse that won Canada's most prestigious race. It's the same guy who throughout his career has shown a disdain for the rules of racing.
But then the other Rick Dutrow shows up, like he did at Santa Anita earlier this week. Chris McGrath, a reporter with the Independent newspaper of England, caught Dutrow in a reflective moment in the stable area the morning after he arrived from New York, and asked him about Big Brown. Dutrow, McGrath wrote, looked away, his voice faltering, and it became obvious to the writer that Dutrow was fighting off tears.
"When it happened, it didn't hit me," Dutrow told McGrath. "But yesterday, when I had to leave the barn in Aqueduct -- it hurt ... I had my daughter with me, and I was not happy. It never happened to me before like that. I've had horses get hurt, had to put them down. And Big Brown, he's in good shape. He could probably go out and train tomorrow. So he still gets to live a great life. But me coming here yesterday, it didn't seem fair. No. Not without him."
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1992 to 2007, and in the past 25 years has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and in more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.