The sun has been up only an hour or so but already it is easy to envy the grey horse, Kip Deville, snickering as the hose splashes over his ears and neck. A few yards away, outside a cool alley of stalls, the tough, slack New York features of Rick Dutrow are glistening in the heat, the stubble silvered across his jowl. He flicks at the flies, looking every inch the abrasive scrapper everyone came to know this summer. But then his voice falters, and his eyes seem to shrink under the peak of his baseball cap. All of a sudden, unbelievably, it becomes apparent that Dutrow is trying to stop himself crying.
"It was the first time it hit me, yesterday." He pauses, looks away. "When it happened, it didn't hit me. But yesterday, when I had to leave the barn in Aqueduct – it hurt... I had my daughter with me, and I was not happy. It never happened to me before like that. I've had horses get hurt, had to put them down. And Big Brown, he's in good shape. He could probably go out and train tomorrow. So he still gets to live a great life. But me coming here yesterday, it didn't seem fair. No. Not without him."
Big Brown was the champion of his generation, a runaway Kentucky Derby winner. He was beaten only once in a career long destined to end, here at Santa Anita tomorrow, in a showdown with Curlin, the richest runner in Turf history. And then, just 11 days ago, Big Brown ripped part of a hoof when galloping with Kip Deville at Aqueduct. His trainer recognised at once that the colt would not make the Breeders' Cup Classic, and he was retired on the spot.
So when Dutrow left Aqueduct – a gritty, urban precinct in his home city, the very antithesis of this place, girdled with acacias and mountains – he was suddenly bereft. "But I had to come for Kip," he said. "If Kip wasn't here, I wouldn't come. Kip means a lot to me. So I have a lot of mixed emotions being here."
But then mixed feelings have been the currency of the whole Big Brown story. For Dutrow, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between public attention and public affection. Indeed, come the day of that one, shattering defeat – in the Belmont Stakes, when 120,000 indignant New Yorkers watched the Triple Crown mirage evaporate on an afternoon of withering heat – some were frankly relieved that his name had not been engraved among the immortals.
For this was an inveterate rule-breaker. A man with notorious drug violations. Hell, Dutrow had not just been suspended for giving his horses illegal substances, he had been suspended for taking them himself. And the worst of it was that he just didn't seem to care. He was graceless about Big Brown's rivals. He admitted that his horses, within the rules, were sometimes given steroids. And a man whose journey might have charted the American dream – 10 years previously, he had been sleeping in a tack-room – instead found himself charged with complicating the sport's integrity. "I can't say I paid much attention," he shrugs. "I know we don't do things wrong around our horses, and especially round a horse like Big Brown."
Earlier in the week, Dutrow was asked whether Kip Deville could win the Breeders' Cup Mile, just as he did last year. "The hardest part of my job with Kip at this point is figuring how much I'm gonna bet," he replied. "I'm counting my money right now."
Not exactly chastened, then? "Well, we talked pretty big, about Big Brown's chances in the Derby," he admitted. "But we didn't do that to hurt anyone. Somebody asked if I liked my horse, and I said: 'Yeah, he's gonna win'. I don't think I was saying anything wrong. I think Kip Deville's gonna win, too. If people ask me a question, I'm going to answer it. If other people don't like the way I answer, I'm not trying to get to them, or degrade them."
All this brassy talk. And then, however briefly, that sudden flicker of sensitivity: the puckered eye, the cracked voice. But then how surprising should that really be? Dutrow once had to fight for custody of a daughter whose mother had been murdered. A man who has had drug issues, and he has a vulnerable streak? Get out of here.
Listen to the sentimental way he talks about these champions of his. "Kip's the kinda horse that won't take to people," he said. "He don't want people around him, don't want to play. So it's hard to find a way to love him. But we found a way, you know. It's just he's not a people person. Big Brown, he absolutely loves people. He wants people round him 24/7."
Hard or brittle, Dutrow has needed resilience, and needs it again now, coming here without the horse of a lifetime. "I got that," he said firmly. "Whatever it takes, to get through the bad times. I don't know how to explain that, I don't know what it is. I've been down, and I'm sure I'll be down again. But you know, we'll make it back up. You can't keep us down. It's hard to get to us.
"I've done a lot of bad things in my life, so I have to expect things to come back at me. I'm not ashamed, I speak about things freely, it doesn't matter to me. But if people want to say maybe I don't belong, having a horse like Big Brown – well, they don't really know me. Because I'm all horseman. That's my life, it's all horses."
He must know that he can never expect another Big Brown, that success for Kip Deville now could only be bittersweet. "But with all these horses, you can't take any down time," he said. "I don't have time to feel sorry for myself. My other horses might pick up on that. I want them to be in their zone all the time. I want to be happy around them. So, you know, we're gonna be fine. We're not bad people. We're good people. I just got a little bit of a thing, that people think I cheat, I steal, I rob." He chuckles expressively. There is self-mockery in the laugh, a trace of sadness. "But I don't."Reuse content