In 1998, Rick Dutrow's residence was the tack room of an Aqueduct Racetrack barn. The horses in his care were within easy reach just outside in the stalls — but prospects for success seemed far beyond his grasp.
Still, the little-known trainer found a sense of comfort living inside Barn 1 of the fabled New York track, trying to rebuild a world in shambles.
His girlfriend — the mother of their young daughter — had been murdered. His father, respected trainer Richard Dutrow Sr., was ailing from cancer, a year from death and estranged from his son. And the one track record he'd established in the 1980s was for marijuana violations, earning racing suspensions in Maryland and New York.
The same year, jockey Kent Desormeaux endured the most painful moment of his career. After riding Real Quiet to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Desormeaux came excruciatingly close to ending what was then a 20-year Triple Crown drought.
But in the grueling 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, he jumped to the front too quickly — taking a 41/2-length lead — then lost his bid for horse racing immortality at the finish line by a nose, caught by Victory Gallop.
What a difference a decade makes.
Today, the two men are on a shared course that could lead them into history, thanks to a horse who suddenly has become a household name, Big Brown.
The strong, statuesque bay — a virtual unknown only two months ago — destroyed the Derby and Preakness fields in May after winning his first two races as a 3-year-old. And, when the 140th Belmont Stakes unfolds about 6:25 p.m. Saturday, Big Brown is heavily favored to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed's triumph in 1978.
The horse has taken Dutrow, 48, to new heights in his unlikely comeback story, showcasing his brash style and controversial methods for the world to see.
It has given Desormeaux, a 38-year-old Hall of Famer with one haunting memory on his resume, an unexpected chance for Triple Crown redemption — as the health of his youngest son weighs heavily on his mind.
Whatever happens, Big Brown has given them a shot to deliver the sport's 12th Triple Crown champion since 1919 and taken them both on the ride of a lifetime.
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The confidence Big Brown has exhibited on the track is exceeded only by the swagger of his trainer.
In a national conference call with the media Thursday, Dutrow began by proclaiming Big Brown completely healed from a recent quarter-crack hoof injury and ready to roll in the Belmont.
Asked if he was feeling at all nervous amid the growing attention heaped on his horse, Dutrow responded nonchalantly:
"I feel that he will do it. I feel like it's actually a foregone conclusion. I just see the horses he's been with, and I see our horse. So I expect him to win this race."
And what about the horse many consider Big Brown's main obstacle, the Japanese-owned Casino Drive, who — in an ironic twist — Desormeaux guided to a 53/4-length win in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 10 at Belmont and whose half-siblings won the past two Belmont Stakes?
"I did get a chance to see him come off the track as we were coming on and somebody pointed him out to me," Dutrow said. "And as I watched him run, and as I see him in person, he can't beat Big Brown. There's no way in the world he can beat Big Brown. So I'm not worried about that horse anymore. He's just another horse in the race, and Big Brown's going to have to school him like he's done every other horse he's ever run against."
Dutrow even criticized — though not by name — John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones, who looked like a Triple Crown lock in 2004. The popular thoroughbred started too fast and lost the lead on the final turn to well-rested Birdstone, who had sat out the Preakness. Some observers felt that other jockeys and trainers were more intent on keeping Smarty from winning — rather than winning themselves. Not so, said Dutrow:
"I think maybe the way they trained that horse for that race going up to the Belmont had a lot to do with him getting beat.
"I was at my house and they showed a flash (of) Smarty Jones breezing for his Belmont race. He did it at Philadelphia Park on a sloppy, sealed track. It just blew my mind. I just could not imagine that anybody would do that with a horse — especially one going to win the Triple Crown."
Dutrow then added one last barb — knocking Smarty's camp for going all out in running away on the homestretch of the Preakness for a 111/2-length victory. He said they should have conserved energy for the Belmont the way Desormeaux held back Big Brown in the final stretch.
"He knew we still had another race to go," Dutrow said. "So I think the connections of Smarty Jones were just not smart in order to get their job done for the Belmont."
People who know Dutrow don't view his penchant for bluntly speaking his mind as boasting or hyping an event. They say he's just being himself — a refreshingly candid voice.
"When he says he hasn't seen a 3-year-old that can beat Big Brown, it might prove to be like Muhammad Ali — it isn't bragging if the horse backs it up," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, an equine surgeon and NBC racing commentator. "He's a lot less verbose than Ali; he's just matter-of-fact. I know him fairly well because he's one of our clients. You can't say it any better than 'you get what you see.' He tells you straight out what he feels and thinks."
But there's something else Bramlage likes.
"He takes very good care of his horses," he said. "Let me put it this way. If I were a racehorse, I'd love to be trained by Rick Dutrow."
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Of course, the way Dutrow trains horses has raised some eyebrows over the years.
Every year since 2000, he has been subjected to a fine or suspension for illegally doping his horses, insisting he only deserved about half of the punishments. The violations included injecting one horse with a forbidden vitamin and others with more than the allowed amount of Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication many horses receive.
He was suspended for two months in 2005 after two of his horses had positive tests for banned substances. And there have been dozens of conduct violations — from getting caught with pot at the track to trying to cheat on a drug test.
Beyond that, Dutrow acknowledges that on the 15th of each month, he gives all his horses Winstrol — the anabolic steroid used by sprinter Ben Johnson that led to Olympic officials stripping his 1988 gold medal in the 100-meter dash and the same one tied to former baseball star Rafael Palmeiro.
Ten states ban the use of steroids, though not Kentucky, Maryland or New York, the Triple Crown states. But by year's end all 38 states with thoroughbred racing could ban the practice. Before the Preakness, Dutrow was asked about his Winstrol practice and said he didn't know what effect it has.
"You'd have to ask the vet what the purpose of that is," he was quoted in the Baltimore Sun. "I don't know what it does. I just like using it."
It's all part of the unlikely rise of the sport's new star. He might still be living in the Aqueduct shadows if he didn't occasionally venture into New York City to eat at Vincent's Clam Bar in Little Italy. A waiter he befriended recommended him to a rich investor, Sandy Goldfarb, who met Dutrow and decided to give him a shot training his horses.
The move paid off in a big way. By 2002, Dutrow led all New York trainers in wins. He has 700-plus victories since 2000 — and is expecting his biggest ever six days from now.
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That would suit Desormeaux just fine.
He has enjoyed his share of ups. As a cocky rookie rider out of Maurice, La., he led the country in wins in 1987 and repeated the feat the next two years. He set a single-season record with 598 wins, soon surpassing 4,000 total.
His prowess led him to trainer Bob Baffert's team aboard Real Quiet and the pinnacle that barely eluded him in 1998. The loss was agonizing, but Desormeaux battled through it and two years later won a second Kentucky Derby for trainer Neil Drysdale.
But trainers and owners gradually grew weary of his brash ways. He struggled to find mounts and headed to Japan for a fresh start. The move paid off as Desormeaux won steadily with a new, hungrier attitude.
He returned to the East Coast in 2006 and amassed more than $8-million in earnings. His opportunity for newfound glory arose when a 2007 injury to Edgar Prado, who would likely have been Big Brown's jockey, created an opening for Desormeaux. "This is the best horse I've ever ridden," he said after the Preakness on May 17. Adding to the intrigue, Prado will now be aboard top challenger Casino Drive.
For all the success, life at home for Desormeaux and wife Sonia has been marked by challenges and sadness. The younger of their two sons, Jacob, was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that left him unable to hear at birth and is steadily depriving him of vision.
Jacob, now 9, has had 17 surgeries, allowing him to hear via special implants that send signals to the brain, which translates them into sounds. Jacob saw his father win for the first time at the Kentucky Derby. Now his father hopes to give him a lasting memory of a Triple Crown triumph — knowing Jacob might one day lose his sight as an adult to a condition with no cure.
Desormeaux summed up his feelings recently in comments reported by the Associated Press. "I'm thankful that I've been blessed with three beautiful people," he said, "and a freak of a horse."
Dave Scheiber can be reached
or (727) 893-8541.