Rick Dutrow, Jr. used to have a unique message on his cellphone.

“Yeah, Dutrow!” was all a caller heard before being sent to voicemail.

It somehow fit the middle-age trainer, who exulted in his prominent place in  racing. He would walk into the paddock with unbridled enthusiasm. He had overseen the career of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. He had won five Breeders’ Cup races, with Saint Liam (Classic) and Silver Train (Sprint) in 2005, Kip Deville (Mile) in 2007 and 2008 and Boys At Toscanova (Juvenile) in 2010.

For all of the controversy that surrounded him based on repeated violations, his swagger was there for all to see. He did not hesitate to snub his nose at authority. On one occasion, he reacted to a suspension by jet-setting to Rio de Janeiro with close friend Ronnie Ebanks, a former jockey agent. Even as evidence mounted that he was a rogue, his personality was irrepressible and, well, he was one of a kind.

“Yeah, Dutrow!” Yeah, that was perfect.

“It was great. I loved it,” Dutrow said. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

Now, a caller is sent directly to voicemail, perhaps the first sign that a 10-year suspension, one of the harshest in racing history, took a massive toll on racing’s notorious bad boy. He was subdued and, at least initially, concerned about exercising his right to freedom of speech.

“I can’t protect myself in the paper because if I say something wrong, I’ll get stalked out of here,” he said.

But then his anger surfaced. With certain trainers being scrutinized after their horses suffered catastrophic breakdowns, Dutrow noted, “I went 11 years without a breakdown, I mean morning, noon and night. That’s total horsemanship and they banned me for 10 years.”

Although all legal maneuvers were exhausted some time ago, Dutrow continues to fight the suspension emotionally. “I’m still appealing. I don’t like what they did,” he said. “I will appeal it until I die.”

He did not deny wrongdoing but said, “I don’t feel I did what they accused me of.”

Three syringes filled with xylazine, a legal anesthetic, were found during a search of his barn on Nov. 3, 2010. Rules prohibit possession of such medical equipment by anyone other than a licensed veterinarian. Stephen Lewandowski, a retired steward, in a Nov. 24, 2019, letter to the New York State Gaming Commission, said it was his understanding that evidence had been planted.

Whatever the case, Dutrow finds himself in the position of having to make a comeback at age 63. And he is finding it challenging as he oversees approximately 34 horses as part of an operation that is steadily growing.

“I don’t think I forgot how to train, but I need to remember how to train,” he said. “Every day, I’m saying, ‘Man, I should have caught that. I would have caught it.’ It’s a slow process for me to get back to where I was because I had so many horses in so many situations every day and you’re on it, on it, on it.”

Dutrow estimated that, at his height, he conditioned approximately 140 horses based at Aqueduct, Saratoga, and Monmouth Park. His initial goal is to have full barns in New York and Kentucky. He had won 1,811 races with earnings surpassing $87 million before years of violations led to his livelihood being taken away.

Dutrow said he spent time at farms in Ocala and even ventured to Saudi Arabia but never trained horses while he was sidelined. “I was basically wasting my time, waiting it out, hoping they would consider a lighter thing,” he said. “But they decided not to.”

At least on the recent morning when he was interviewed, Dutrow was frustrated with himself. “There are things that I’m missing, no question about it. I’m here at Belmont and sometimes I don’t know what horse I should be taking to what track,” he said. “There are a lot of things I need to be sharper at.”

As the trainer tries to establish a foothold against counterparts such as Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, both with massive operations, Ebanks is working to build the morale of his “brother” and former roommate.

“They broke his spirit,” Ebanks said. “They took his life away. All of his life was about horses and being with horses.”

Dutrow had built a strong operation and had grown accustomed to working with quality stock. He has a  long road if he is to get back there. He won with the first horse he started since he return when Prince of Pharoahs, a New York-bred gelding he claimed for $45,000, took the sixth race at Belmont Park on May 6.

He is winless in 11 starts since but has four runner-up efforts and two third-place finishes for earnings of $251,588. Although White Abarrio had been with him for only 2 1/2 weeks, he was extremely encouraged when that 4-year-old colt took third in the June 10 Met Mile. He continues to have high hopes for White Abarrio. Other runners have presented more of a puzzle.

“When something isn’t right with a horse, then I have to be better at it,” Dutrow said, adding, “I don’t have the same vets I used to use, I don’t have the same foreman I used to have, I don’t have the same assistant, I don’t have the same grooms.”

Dutrow said he is devoting longer hours than ever before. Some of his previous owners have returned and potential new owners are expressing interest.

“All I need to do is win a couple of big races to get my confidence back,” he said. “I’m all in.”

Autor Tom Pedulla


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