Stutts and Smooth the dream ticket
Thursday 23 October 2008
Ten days after staging her richest horserace, America has the chance to prove that any child, of any race or echelon, can grow up and become President. The Turf, of course, has its entrenched powers, its hegemonies and nepotisms. But who knows? Perhaps, however trivial the context, the Breeders' Cup Classic can make its own, authenticating contribution to the nation's democratic mythology.
"I know my horse is gonna be a long shot Saturday," says Bennie Stutts Jnr. "People are gonna say he can't be in the same class as Curlin, that there are some monsters in here. But my little horse, he doesn't know he's a little horse. And as far as I'm concerned, he's my big horse."
He shuffles along, through the backstretch stabling, turning his eyes from the dazzle of the young day. The San Gabriel mountains, after their crisp emergence into the dawn, are already losing detail in a wash of white light. Never mind the "junior", Stutts is a septuagenarian with a bad hip and two replaced knees. His wrist is strapped.
Smooth Air is one of just seven animals in his care, and everyone said he was too small. "So I got my vet to measure him, and he's 15.2," he says. "That is a small horse. But he's well made. And if you could measure his heart..."
The other six are back in Miami. Over the years, he sometimes got up to a dozen, sometimes dwindled to three. He trained for three decades before winning his first stakes prize. "And now here I am at Santa Anita, for the richest race in America." He shakes his head.
In the spring, Smooth Air finished second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby, and then followed him to the Kentucky Derby itself. "Every trainer's No1 dream," Stutts said. "And I gave up on that dream 30 years ago. Because I stayed in one place, to raise my family. My father was a trainer, and as a child I lived in a trailer. We'd travel around. I'd cry every time I had to change schools."
He had seen only one Kentucky Derby. In 1959, when his father's nomadic stable happened to be in Louisville, Stutts climbed on to the roof of a car and watched them through the backstretch. "I had a bet on Sword Dancer and thought he'd won," he remembered. "I was jumping up and down on that car – I don't know whose it was, but I might have put a couple of dents in it – and he was beaten a nose."
Luck was not with Smooth Air, either. Stutts grimaces at the memory. "He broke 18th, was checked twice, went seven wide on the first turn – and still beat half the field. Three days later I called the owner and said we gotta get this horse back on the track, he's kicking the barn down. And he won the Ohio Derby easy."
Big Brown has retired, but now Stutts is loading his sling against another Goliath: Curlin, the richest runner in Turf history. Stutts is not the oldest trainer at the meeting, mark you, nor the one with the smallest string. "There's a man here, Pete Anderson," Stutts said, in mock irritation. "He's 76, and has the one horse, Delightful Kiss [in the Marathon]. Now Pete Anderson, in 1948, was 16 years old. I was 10. He was an apprentice rider, a 'bug boy'. He won eight straight on one horse for my father. I have this picture of them in the winner's circle, and I showed it to Pete. When I got it back, he'd written on the other side: 'I have ridden for a lot of successful trainers. But the best horseman I ever rode for was Ben Stutts Snr.'
"And Pete rode for trainers like Woody Stephens. My father wasn't a big name in the business. But people had nothing but respect for him. Many times, when I've had a problem with a horse, I've asked myself: 'What would my father do?' The old ways, the old remedies, they still work sometimes."
In these cynical days, then, when some American trainers might as well wear lab coats, Stutts is making a stand. "I've always been honest," he said. "There were hard times. But I couldn't do anything else. I don't know I could change a flat tyre. I've always had brushes, pitchforks in my hand."
And sometimes the meek do inherit the earth, albeit they might have to wait a while. It was honesty that introduced Smooth Air to Stutts. About 10 years ago, a family named Burns from Chicago sent him a filly. A week later, he picked up the phone.
"Mr Burns," he said. "How long has this filly had the bowed tendon?" Burns knew nothing about a bowed tendon. Then Stutts said: "She makes a terrible noise, galloping – I think she needs throat surgery." Burns decided to take her away to the breeding paddocks. "Thank you for your honesty, Mr Stutts," he said.
"Coupla years went by, I didn't think I'd hear from them again, my phone rang. 'Do you have an empty stall?' I told him yes. And the first stake, after 30 years, was with that horse."
Then one day, Burns's van arrived and Smooth Air stepped down the ramp. Stutts had trained the dam. "The mother was crooked-legged. But she did have speed. So the first thing I looked at was his legs. Oho, I see no crooked legs. Next he goes on the track. He's a daisy-cutter, a thing I love to see. No wasted action. The first time he breezed out the gate, he went five eighths in a minute – and Manny Cruz hasn't turned his head loose yet. And Manny says: 'Whatever you do, please don't ride anyone else on this horse.'
"He's a dream, this horse. A dream for everyone," Stutts said. "My grandson is five years old. Maybe 50 years from now, he'll be taking these pictures out. It's a wonderful thing this horse has done for us all."
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