Richard Dutrow Jr. enters his first Kentucky Derby as confident in his chances to win it as if it were the third race at Aqueduct on any January day. In Big Brown, Dutrow believes he has the best horse in what he feels is an inferior field for next Saturday's 134th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
"Until somebody shows me the beast, this is not a tough horse race," Dutrow said in a typical recent interview. "I'm training this horse for a horse race; I don't care what the name of it is. I feel he's the best horse in the race - I feel he's going to win the race. Anything else is going to be extremely disappointing to me.
"I know there's no one going into this race as good as he is right now. If he breaks clean, it's a mismatch to me on paper."
Dutrow's confidence stems not only from having such a talented runner in Big Brown - who has won all three of his starts by a combined 29 lengths - but also from an unwavering belief in his training ability gleaned from a lifetime spent working around horses. Now, he's on the threshhold of capturing a prize that most horsemen spend a lifetime chasing.
"The only way I can get confidence is through my horses," Dutrow said. "Anything else I do I'm going to fail at. In the racing game I feel like I'm good, and it's because I was born to be good. I'm like a racehorse - I was born to do this, it comes naturally to me."
Dutrow, 48, was born the son of a trainer. Richard E. Dutrow Sr. was one of the most successful trainers on the Maryland circuit, competing alongside the likes of King Leatherbury, Buddy Delp, and John Tammaro. The father died in 1999, but his 3,665 career victories still rank 13th all-time among trainers. He also left behind a legacy of successful horsemen - sons Rick; Tony, 50, also a successful trainer; and Chip, 47, currently an assistant to Rick.
"I think my dad had a feel for the game, I think he had a feel for horses, and I think he passed that along to me," said Dutrow, who worked for his father for several years. "He was a natural horseman and he really worked hard at it, and he became very successful."
Dutrow, who has maintained a public stable since 1995, has steadily built one of the strongest operations in the country. In 2005, Dutrow won two Breeders' Cup races on the same day, including the $4 million Classic with Saint Liam, who would go on to be voted Horse of the Year.
Since then, Dutrow has continued to flourish. In 2006 and 2007, he averaged 161 wins and finished seventh in the country in purses won. He captured Grade 1 races such as the Metropolitan Handicap, Coaching Club American Oaks, Frank Kilroe, Carter, De Francis Dash, and last year's Breeders' Cup Mile.
In addition to Big Brown, Dutrow's 110-horse stable includes Benny the Bull and Kip Deville, arguably the best sprinter and turf horse in training.
"I want to keep getting more of them," Dutrow said. "It's not easy to be sitting in the spot I'm sitting in right now. I know it's not going to last."
His career got off to a rocky start. In his youth, Dutrow had a penchant for getting into trouble, so much so that his brother Tony said he thought Richard would "end up in jail for a long time someday."
A lot of Dutrow's difficulties stemmed from drug use. In the late 1980s, when Dutrow first tried to go out on his own, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board ruled him off New York Racing Association tracks for five years after he tested positive for marijuana. In 2000, Dutrow surrendered his license and missed five weeks because he again tested positive for marijuana.
He was suspended for two months in 2005 for two medication positives involving his horses and a violation of New York's claiming rules. During that time, he was found to have had contact with his barn, which resulted in another suspension and $25,000 fine. Also, in 2007, Dutrow was fined and suspended for providing misleading information about Wild Desert leading up to the 2005 Queen's Plate at Woodbine, a race that Wild Desert won.
"Yeah, I [messed] a lot of stuff up," Dutrow said. "I want more things now so I've been concentrating on doing things right. But I still [mess] things up. It doesn't matter; I get to train horses now. No matter what happens, I'm going to be allowed to train."
Dutrow can come across as a bit of flake. He's known for calling everyone "babe," and his cell phone voice-mail message is a simple "Yeah, Dutrow." But few doubt his ability to train a racehorse.
"I'm not looking for anything magical," Tony Dutrow said. "I'm just saying Rick will take a horse and say 'Okay, this is what's wrong with him, that's what's wrong with him,' and he'll fix those things. He'll know how to make that horse happy, what that horse wants. Ricky can put it all together.
"Ricky is very good, and I think damn near everybody knows it."
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was stabled across from Dutrow last winter at the Palm Meadows training facility in Florida.
"He has a little more fun in life and enjoys life, but he's a very good horseman and a very good student of our game," McLaughlin said. "He wins at a high percentage because he does a lot of the work previous to entering them."
After entering his horses, Dutrow sometimes hits the mutuel windows. Dutrow said he bet $160,000 to win on Saint Liam in the 2005 Breeders' Cup - a $384,000 profit. He said he feels the same way about Big Brown. So, does he anticipate making another big bet?
"Yeah, I do," Dutrow said. "I'm sure I'm going to make some kind of move."
Chip Acierno was one of Dutrow's first owners, hiring him in 1996 when Dutrow was struggling to get started. Acierno, who races under the name Gabrielle Farm, called it the smartest move he ever made in racing.
"If you go to his barn and see the feed he gives the horses, the way the bedding is, the way the horses are taken care of and then you go to the paddock, nine out of 10 times his horses will look better than anybody else's," said Acierno, who was part-owner of Dutrow's first Grade 1 winner, Carson Hollow.
One of Acierno's favorite horses was Toddler, who won the 2001 Kings Point at Aqueduct. In 2002, Toddler was claimed for $75,000 by Michael Iavarone. Not long after that, Acierno got a phone call from Iavarone looking for a trainer. Acierno recommended Dutrow.
Iavarone would go on to form International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stable. Fueled by deep-pocketed investors, IEAH has become a major player, buying a majority interest in a bevy of talented runners including Kip Deville, Benny the Bull, and Big Brown.
Big Brown came to Dutrow shortly after he won a maiden race by 11 1/4 lengths at Saratoga last September. He was plagued by foot problems that forced him to miss last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and then kept him from doing any training in January. Just getting him back to the races was a chore.
Big Brown returned to training in February, and after just three easy breezes in a 12-day period, Dutrow deemed him ready to run in a first-level allowance race going one mile at Gulfstream. Originally scheduled for the turf, rain forced the race to be moved to the main track, and Big Brown, meeting just four rivals, galloped to a 12 3/4-length victory.
"I was the under the impression he was ready to be entered in a basic one-other-than allowance race and that talent would get him to the wire first," Dutrow said.
After first thinking of the Blue Grass, Dutrow and IEAH reversed course. After, as Dutrow puts it, "a night of thinking and drinking," the decision was made to run in the Florida Derby.
Despite being saddled with post 12 and running an opening half-mile in 45.83 seconds, Big Brown rolled to a five-length victory in the Florida Derby, establishing himself as an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He was the first horse to win from either post 11 or 12 going 1 1/8 miles on Gulfstream's main track since it was reconfigured in 2005.
As pleased as he was with the Florida Derby, Dutrow seems even happier with the way Big Brown has come out of it both physically and mentally. Big Brown's front feet, on which he now wears glue-on shoes, are no longer a problem. And Dutrow couldn't be happier with Big Brown's training.
"Since he has run, he has been taking control of his training," Dutrow said. "When he sees a horse galloping in front of him, he wants that target. It's not like he's being unmanageable, but his mind is going in the right direction."
Dutrow, who can still be unmanageable at times himself, believes he, too, is going in the right direction.
"I got all these cobwebs out of me now, and it's showing," he said. "I've done some good things around horses and its going to continue."