LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every word Rick Dutrow has spoken this week has passed through a smile. "It's all good, babe," he keeps saying, urging anyone who will listen to lay money on his horse.
Around the track, where every railbird is starved for a tip, a grin is usually intended as either a shield or a diversion. Dutrow couldn't fake this smile, though. He knows how improbable the journey has been, beginning as a child in Hagerstown, getting in trouble on Maryland tracks and culminating today in the 134th Kentucky Derby, where Dutrow's colt Big Brown is the favorite.
In between, Dutrow has packed enough living to fuel a daytime soap, to keep an afternoon talk-show host busy and to ensure that a few therapists drive nice cars. Partying, drugs and gambling are the just start of it.
A falling-out with his father, a famed Maryland horseman in his own right, was never resolved. The mother of his daughter was murdered. Multiple suspensions. And somehow Dutrow went from living in a New York barn to starting perhaps the best bet in today's 20-horse field.
"It's all good, babe," he keeps saying.
And they keep asking him questions, keep hoping for answers. But how do you explain it?
"I don't think I'm a person you look to for guidance - don't do this, don't do that," says Dutrow, 48. "The only thing I need is to be around my horses. ... When I leave the barn, trouble starts."
In the blood
He was born into the game. Dutrow's father, Dickie Dutrow, was one of the area's top trainers in the 1970s and early '80s, working out of Laurel and Pimlico. In 1975, he posted 352 wins, a record at the time, and became the first Maryland trainer since 1917 to top the national rankings for wins.
"He was a good trainer, and he knew it," says trainer King Leatherbury, who battled Dutrow for Maryland bragging rights for years. "He wasn't shy about it. ... You might call him a little cocky, but in a friendly way. I remember one time, I was slow getting started in a particular meet, he saw me and shouts out, 'Hey, you still here? Figured you'd left.'"
Everyone in racing knew Dickie - he even ran a stable of horses for Orioles' owner Peter G. Angelos - and in turn, everyone knew his three sons, Tony, Ricky and Chip, who treated the track as their playground.
Rick Dutrow was the middle son, and while all three boys would help their dad in the barn, he was the most likely to wander off and find trouble. But all three boys were addicted to the track and all three dropped out of Atholton High when they reached 16, which pained their mother but delighted Dickie.
"He didn't know anything about school. It was different in those days," says Tony Dutrow, now a trainer in Philadelphia. "We saw the success our father was enjoying and there was no doubts in our minds that we could do the same thing. School felt like something that was just in our way, as stupid as that sounds."
In 1984, Rick Dutrow convinced his father to move his operations to New York, where there was more money to be made. And he did find plenty of success before returning to Maryland in 1997.
"I think I've done everything I can do up here," he told The Sun at the time. "I've served my term. Now I think it's time to go back and enjoy the rest of my life."
By that point, Dickie had become frustrated with his middle son, his work habits and his lifestyle, which seemed to focus more on gambling, women and partying than horses.
"Dickie thought Ricky was one of the greatest horsemen around. Period," says Mark Reid, who learned the ropes from Dickie in the 1970s and is a friend of his son. "He knew Ricky could get the most out of a horse, which is why it was so frustrating for Dickie. Dickie was the hard-working, no-nonsense, taskmaster-type. Ricky was the rebellious wild child."
Father and son reached a stalemate, both too proud to bridge their differences. One man all work, the other all play.
"My dad didn't teach us about fun," Dutrow says. "He taught us the work ethic. He worked every day; even Christmas Day he was at the barn. Every day he was out there pitching. He never said, 'Go have some fun.'"
At odds with his father, Ricky Dutrow stayed behind in New York, convinced his career was about to take off.
"I didn't want to go back to Maryland with my dad," he said. "I figured that was a dead scene."
Trouble with drugs
Aside from having little money and more vices to indulge than horses to train, Dutrow did himself few favors. Over the years, he has been suspended because both he and his horses have tested positive for drugs.
The last suspension came in 2005. Dutrow insists his horses are clean, though whispers follow him from track to track. "I've had so many different suspensions," he says. "Half of them I deserved. Half of them I didn't."
In those days, he was using marijuana and cocaine and saw few bets that weren't worth taking.
"I don't know what was going through my mind at the time on stuff. I know it wasn't working right," he said this week. "I'm still trying to keep my mind working the right way."
In 1997, starting out on his own, Dutrow bounced from one problem to the next. A girlfriend who had Dutrow's daughter was brutally murdered, and he had to go through legal channels to prove paternity and keep Molly, now 13, out of foster care.
At the time, he had little money. He spent most of that year living in a tack room in Aqueduct Racetrack's Barn 1, his life little more than a cot, a box of pizza and a lot of time to think. The period served as a warning, he says:
"I needed to go through that. And I loved every minute of it."
He slowly built a stable, inspiring confidence in any owner who would give him the time of day. He'd call them "babe" and they could see he had a special connection with the horses. Dutrow was finally focusing on the one thing he knew he could do right.
"I've always had confidence in myself around my horses," he says. And away from them?
"Not really, no. But I try to get the right people in place outside the barns where they can at least try to manage me."
Dickie Dutrow spent his career dealing with lower-level claiming horses. He never had one that raced in the Kentucky Derby. The Derby, in fact, was a world away from the small-stakes races Dickie dominated. "He could watch the Derby on TV," Dutrow says. "He would never say, 'Let's fly to the Derby.' He'd rather be getting up, going to work."
But Rick Dutrow still dreamed about taking a horse to America's biggest race. He says that's why he went to New York and that's why he spent a year in that tack room.
Last fall, one of his owners scooped up Big Brown, a powerful 2-year-old, and Dutrow soon knew he had something special. Big Brown has raced only three times, but he has won those races by a combined 29 lengths.
There's a reason Dutrow has been smiling all week. He talks with a sense of certainty that is a rarity around the track.
"I'd never be able to talk like that, but I think it's exciting for the sport," says trainer Graham Motion. "I admire him for his confidence. But don't be fooled by that goofy demeanor of his. That's all an act. He's a very smart guy."
The fact that Dutrow is so sure of his horse is a big reason the betting odds favor Big Brown so heavily. Despite his past, Dutrow is respected, so when he says he has a horse capable of winning all three Triple Crown races, people pay attention.
"Generally, when he says something like that, you have to take it seriously because he knows what's going on," says trainer Todd Pletcher, who's putting up two horses against Big Brown today.
Dutrow's smile hasn't faded for a second this week. Still, with all the spectacle and celebration, he acknowledges that "right now is the perfect opportunity for me to do something stupid. But I don't think that I will."
He has changed over the years, done a lot of growing. He still talks big and lives fast. He was torn this week about putting money on Big Brown. He wants to drop $100,000.
"My mom is all over me not to bet, and Molly keeps saying, 'Don't do it,'" he said. "Maybe betting on this race would be too much. It is such a great race and winning it would be enough.
"You know money doesn't mean anything to me. It's really all about the horse, and if I did bet and win, I'd just turn around the next day and blow it all on another bet. So maybe I won't."
He paused briefly, the wheels turning as quick as his mouth. "Well, I'm not saying I won't, because I know I could turn around and pick up the phone and say, 'I need to make this bet.'"
Dickie Dutrow died two years after returning to Maryland, in 1999, from pancreatic cancer. He was 61. Rick Dutrow speaks fondly of his father, of the man who showed him the ropes. But there is a tinge of regret. The two never patched up their differences.
Eager for change
Leatherbury, Dickie's friend and rival, ran into the old trainer's son a couple of years ago at Mountaineer Racetrack in West Virginia. Leatherbury told Dutrow, "You know what, Ricky, your father sure would be proud of you."
Dutrow seems to realize that, too. He knows his dad would appreciate the horseman that he has become, the man he has grown into.
"It's all good, babe," Dutrow keeps saying.
And it all culminates - this long twisting, bouncing ride - over a 1 1/4 -mile oval of dirt today at Churchill Downs. It's only two minutes, but Dutrow has been dreaming about it his entire life.
"I'm looking forward, very much, to making the walk with the horse from the backstretch to the paddock," Dutrow says. "I was talking to [Hall of Fame trainer] Wayne Lukas this morning, and he said when you make that walk your entire life changes, and I believe him.
"I can't wait for the change to happen."
THE DUTROW FILE
Full name: Richard Dutrow Jr.
Born: Aug. 5, 1959, in Hagerstown
Resides: Long Beach, N.Y.
Family: Daughter, Molly
Biggest wins: 2005 Breeders' Cup Classics (with Saint Liam), 2005 Breeders' Cup Spring (with Silver Train) and 2007 Breeders' Cup Mile (with Kip Deville)
Other top runners: Carson Hollow, Sus City, Cyber Secret, Willy o' the Valley, Thunder Blitz, Classic Endeavor
Honors: Saint Liam was named Horse of the Year in 2005 and Eclipse Award winner