|Rick Dutrow's past and methods bear scrutiny. (Garry Jones/Associated Press)|
At the racetrack, the possibility of being blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime horse is what drives down-and-outers and high rollers alike. Once in a great while, the sport is graced by a magnificent equine athlete whose poise, dominance, and brilliance warrant an immediate berth in horse racing history, and there is no way to predict which human handlers will be entrusted with the holy grail: a Triple Crown champion.
But if you ask Richard Eugene Dutrow Jr., the brash trainer of Big Brown, he'll tell you he saw his windfall of good fortune coming a long time ago. Even if you somehow turned back the clock 10 years - to when Dutrow was a one-horse trainer living in a barn at Aqueduct, trying to get back on track after being ruled off for habitual drug problems and rules violations - and told him he would one day be on the verge of training the sport's first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, his confidence would not waver.
"Well, yeah," Dutrow replied when queried about the stunning improbability of his success, his native Maryland drawl tempered by three decades of transformation into a blunt New Yorker. "Crazy things happen to me. So I would have believed that, yes."
That's Dutrow. Brazen. Cocksure. Candid, with a swagger. Those qualities can enable a horseman to survive thoroughbred racing's grueling five-week Triple Crown campaign, during which a trainer must not only expertly condition a steed, but also manage the mounting pressure of media frenzy. Yet those same attributes draw unwanted attention to the unsavory elements of the 48-year-old trainer's checkered past, a litany of transgressions so extensive that reports of his wrongdoing have overshadowed this year's Triple Crown, if not the sport itself.
Undefeated, fast, and classy, Dutrow's muscular bay colt is a 2-5 favorite to win Saturday's Belmont Stakes. But Big Brown's odds of outrunning his trainer's reputation as a reckless, win-at-all-costs rule breaker are far longer than that.
You could argue that Dutrow's short-term trouble ignited the day before Big Brown won the Preak ness Stakes. That's when Dutrow told the Baltimore Sun that every month he gives the Kentucky Derby winner - and his 120 or so other horses - the anabolic steroid Winstrol, even though "I don't know what it does. I just like using it."
But the seeds for Dutrow's long-term turmoil were sown long before that.
Rick is the middle son (brothers Tony and Chip are also trainers) of the late Dick Dutrow, a respected horseman who won 3,665 races over a five-decade span, the 13th-winningest trainer of all time. Rick dropped out of high school to pursue an education on the Maryland backstretch, but six weeks shy of his 17th birthday, he was kicked out of Pimlico Race Course for possession of marijuana.
Dutrow trekked to California, but his racing license was revoked at Hollywood Park because he falsified the application. After he returned home, the downward spiral continued. Suspended for participation in a stolen check/forgery scheme at Bowie Race Course in 1980, he tried to make the jump to the ultracompetitive New York circuit, but was busted for marijuana on five occasions between 1980 and 1991. Toss in repeat suspensions for writing bad checks, failing to report a criminal conviction, and various license refusals for "moral turpitude," "evidence of unfitness," and attempts to "deceive state racing officials," and it adds up to more time off the track than on it.
"It wasn't a good time," said Dutrow. "Just kind of wasted time, you know? I never worked. I never did anything. I didn't do anything constructive, you know?"
Dutrow's life had become consumed by drugs and gambling by the mid-1990s. Kicked out of his parents' New York home, he and his father were no longer speaking when Dick Sr. died of pancreatic cancer in 1999. Rick said he harbors no bitterness, but still hasn't visited his father's grave.
Dutrow moved into a storage room in a horse barn at Aqueduct. He fathered a daughter, but split with her mother, Sheryl Denise Toyloy, who took the girl, Molly, to live in Schenectady, N.Y. In 1997, Toyloy was involved in a crack cocaine deal that went bad. When it did, thieves staged a break-in and brutally murdered Toyloy as baby Molly lay unharmed in an adjacent room.
Today, Molly, 13, lives with Dutrow in his sprawling $1.8 million house on Long Island. He calls her his "good luck charm," and might be right: Just as all this chaos and tragedy began to crest, Dutrow finally caught a groove and began winning races - lots of them, with astounding reversals of form, on a national, and even global, scale.
Another chanceAround 2000, Dutrow got introduced to Sanford Goldfarb, who saw potential in the trainer. With a sizable bankroll backing him, it became evident that Dutrow had a Midas touch for evaluating thoroughbreds and remarkably improving their performance.
With Dutrow calling the shots, Goldfarb became New York's winningest owner from 2001-03. Expanding his operation to include such famous clients as Don Zimmer and Joe Torre, Dutrow himself rocketed up the standings. The race that stamped him as a major player came in Boston, when he shipped Offlee Wild to Suffolk Downs to win the 2004 Massachusetts Handicap.
He has since won the New York training title three times, trained a Horse of the Year, and scored in three Breeders' Cup races.
But a disturbing pattern coincides with Dutrow's meteoric ascent: Since 2000, Dutrow's official record maintained by the Association of Racing Commissioners International has again swelled with drug violations. This time, personal marijuana use has been replaced by an array of equine pharmaceuticals.
Steven Allday is a Kentucky-based horse doctor specializing in thoroughbred performance. He said he was Dutrow's veterinarian from the late '90s until about two years ago, when the two began to disagree over how the horses should be treated.
"I left him, and he knows why, because he didn't play by the rules," Allday said. "I don't like a guy that will tell the public that he's a straight shooter and cares about his animals, and basically will do subversive things to them."
Since 2000, Dutrow has been cited for 18 drug infractions, ranging from comparably benign violations for overages of legal medications Phenylbutazone and Lasix, to more alarming charges of using Mepivacaine, an anesthetic that can be used to make sore horses feel no pain. In addition to $20,000 in drug fines, Dutrow racked up a $5,000 penalty for providing misleading information to authorities about a workout, and was slapped with a $25,000 fine last year for having contact with his stable while he was supposed to be serving a suspension.
For a trainer whose record has swelled to 1,224 career wins and $57 million in earnings, do those fines represent little more than an annoying cost of doing business?
"I don't feel like going into that, man," Dutrow said. "Hey, listen, why don't you do me a favor? Why don't you ask me about Big Brown? I mean, stop asking me questions about this, I don't want to go through this, man, I've gone through it 100 times. [The media] should be calling me and asking me about the horse, man, and not fines that happened six, seven, five years ago. I mean, come on.
"The people that are looking for something else? Just go away. I don't want any bad karma around the horse."
Given Dutrow's public proclamation that Big Brown is competing in the Triple Crown while on steroids, it might be too late.
Methods questionedIt's important to make one point clear when talking about steroids in horse racing: They are legal in 28 of the 38 states that allow thoroughbred racing, including Kentucky, Maryland, and New York, where the three Triple Crown races are hosted.
But are steroids ethical?
Steroids have legitimate medicinal value. They aid in recovery from illness or injury, allowing thoroughbreds to gain muscle and build conditioning.
During the past 20 years, the line between "therapeutic" and "performance-enhancing" began to blur.
Some veterinary estimates of steroids in horse racing now peg the usage rate at 60 percent.
Allday said mature horses that are administered steroids after their bone structure has fully developed can benefit from the regimen, particularly older geldings whose bodies no longer produce testosterone. That's different, he noted, from the dangerous practice of bulking up young thoroughbreds whose muscle mass becomes 20 percent to 30 percent greater than it should be on an undeveloped skeletal frame.
Allday said years ago it was he who first recommended that Dutrow put his horses on Winstrol. But now he wouldn't advise it.
"At the point in time that I worked for him, he basically had claiming horses," Allday said. "They were mature. He didn't start training 2- and 3-year-olds when I was there. It's not my recommendation for guys that are going to be racing breeding stock to be putting them on steroids."
Dutrow said he has no regrets about racing young horses on Winstrol, and doesn't care what people think of him for doing so. He's been openly predicting victory in the Belmont Stakes for three weeks, calling it "a foregone conclusion" that Big Brown will win the Triple Crown.
"The thing that people are not happy about with Rick is the fact that he comes across as arrogant; that's what bugs people," said Allday. "If he was a little more humble and just said, 'Boy, it's great to have a nice horse,' I think people wouldn't be nearly as critical. But that's not his nature."
Obligation, or not?When an owner or trainer is fortunate enough to have a superstar horse that is in the public eye, does that privilege come with a special responsibility to act as a role model for the sport?
"In my case, absolutely," said Patrice Wolfson, who owned and raced Affirmed, the sport's last Triple Crown winner in 1978.
"I agree with Mrs. Wolfson," said John Veitch, the chief state steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Association who is more famously known as the Hall of Fame trainer of Alydar, the archrival of Affirmed. "You have an obligation to the sport above and beyond anything else . . . And you should always live up to your obligations."
Dutrow isn't so sure. "I don't know if I'd be good at something like that," he said. "I don't know if I would be good to listen to."
Later this month, Dutrow might not have a choice. The same congressional subcommittee that scrutinized steroid use in Major League Baseball is expected to order hearings on thoroughbred racing. According to Representative Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, "we may be calling him as a witness."
Whitfield said horse racing has a "big problem" with integrity, adding that he is aware of Dutrow's history of wrongdoing.
"I think it's quite troubling," Whitfield said. "The interesting thing about racing is that there does not seem to be any stigma attached to trainers who violate the rules. I'm very much disappointed in the fact that some of the best-known trainers are using and compounding certain drugs that are very difficult to detect."
In the days leading up to the final leg of the Triple Crown, Dutrow has repeatedly said he does not feel any pressure. "I'm kind of only focused on what is happening in front of me with my horses," he said.
Down the road, there will be plenty of time for verbal sparring about what is good or isn't good for horse racing. For now, Rick Dutrow can clam up. On Saturday, Big Brown will talk for him.
The question is, even if he wins the Triple Crown, what will it say about the state of the sport?