Derby Favorite Trainer's Rollercoaster Past

In some barns on the backside of Churchill Downs, they believe in the Derby gods.

Horsemen will tell you with conviction that the Kentucky Derby is so special it can be won only by good people. They'll tell you the Derby gods keep it that way -- mystically blocking black-hearted owners and malevolent trainers from reaching racing heaven, no matter how talented their horses. I know at least one Derby-winning trainer and one Derby-winning owner who earnestly buy into the concept.

They point out Frances Genter, the little old lady who won the 1990 Derby with Unbridled. They refer to the Sackatoga Six, a group of regular Joes who hit it rich with Funny Cide. They cite gentlemanly Bob Lewis, owner of Silver Charm and Charismatic, and the unpretentious connections of Smarty Jones.

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It's hard to believe that in 133 runnings, a few rogues haven't slipped past the Derby gods and into the ultimate winner's circle. But if the believers are right, you have to wonder what the gods are thinking about the man who will saddle morning-line favorite Big Brown on Saturday, trainer Rick Dutrow.

Dutrow has used illicit drugs, on himself and on his horses, and has been suspended for both on multiple occasions. He has come to the cathedral of racing this week with immense pride and a dearth of humility. He has wagered outrageous sums on his animals and bragged about the victories.

Rick Dutrow's past and present are colliding as he trains Derby favorite Big Brown.

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But if the gods help those who help themselves, they must be impressed by a guy who a decade ago was sleeping on a cot in a New York racetrack barn. He had no home, no car and very little prospects until he met a waiter with connections at a clam bar in Little Italy. Going from homeless and nearly horseless to the Derby favorite in 10 years takes some guts.

So if Rick Dutrow were Albert Brooks in "Defending Your Life," he would stand before the Derby gods and plead "Nolo contendre, babe." Dutrow calls everyone babe.

The no-contest approach is pretty much the one he has taken this week on the Churchill backside, discussing his checkered career with a disarming willingness. He won't run or hide, and hasn't even tried very hard to dispute or minimize his past transgressions.

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On the confessional scale, Dutrow falls somewhere between the bellicose denial of Roger Clemens and the tear-drenched mea culpa of Marion Jones.

"I've had so many different suspensions -- half of them I deserved, half of them I didn't," Dutrow said. "I don't think I'm a person you'd look to for guidance. I can't guide another person and say, 'Hey, you've got to do this,' or 'Hey, you've got to do that.' I'm not that type.

"So the only thing I need is to be allowed to work around the horses, so when they give me back my license after a suspension, man, I'm good to go. And even when I'm on my suspension, I'm going to try and sneak in there and look at my horses. What am I going to tell you, man? I'm a horseman."

He is a horseman with an incredible personal story extending beyond his high crimes and misdemeanors.

In 1998, the high school dropout was living in the tack room of Barn 1 at Aqueduct Race Course, with a couple of cheap claimers right outside in the stalls. Dutrow was there because of a series of unfortunate events, some of which he describes in greater detail than others.

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