ELMONT, N.Y. - A topic yesterday morning on WFAN, the sports-talk radio station in New York: Root for Big Brown or against him? It was trainer Rick Dutrow's latest boasts that raised the subject.
Either way, Dutrow said he would be in the winner's circle by the time Big Brown's chief rival, Casino Drive, gets to the quarter pole in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.
Asked yesterday if he was as confident as his trainer, one of Big Brown's owners, Michael Iavarone, said that was not possible.
"I don't think Muhammad Ali was that confident," Iavarone quipped.
Iavarone also believes there is a reason Dutrow, so cocky before Big Brown's Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs, is "sticking to his guns," as Iavarone put it, even as Dutrow has had to deal with Big Brown's quarter crack in a hoof that popped up after the Preakness, and Big Brown now has a less-than-ideal inside-post position.
"If he takes a step back, everybody would be all over him," Iavarone said.
Dutrow just shrugs. He has the whole industry choosing sides. The question about this 48-year-old isn't whether he is a kind of scoundrel, but what kind of scoundrel is he? And how much has he reformed? He is considered as knowledgeable as any horseman around; is a close friend of Joe Torre, who had Dutrow train his horses; and is the son of the late Dick Dutrow, a top Maryland trainer.
He won at the claiming game and now is winning the biggest races, including at the places where the horses are tested most vigilantly for drugs. His Saint Liam was the 2005 horse of the year after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic.
But Dutrow has also run afoul of claiming rules, a common-enough transgression, and reported a phantom workout before a big race in 2005, a substantial trangression in this sport. And he had to serve a 60-day suspension in 2005 after two of his horses tested position for Mepivacaine, a powerful painkiller. That was a major transgression. Then he got suspended for violating his suspension, staying in contact with his assistants.
Other blemishes are more personal. According to the Association of Racing Commissioners International, Dutrow was suspended by the New Jersey Racing Commission in 1997 "pending restitution of non-negotiable check cashed at Monmouth" and fined $500 in New York in 2003: "Was the aggressor in an altercation." There's this 1991 suspension by the New York Racing and Wagering Board: "Attempted to provide a false urine sample by means of an apparatus concealed upon his person." "Possession of marijuana" was the cause for several suspensions.
He admits his past - most of it, anyway. In his younger days, he lived in the tack room at Aqueduct - for five years - and talks openly about getting caught once with cocaine in his car, and how he always just wanted to smoke marijuana, for 10 years. "I just liked smoking it. I wouldn't stop, and they would always catch me," Dutrow told the New York Post. "I would get ruled off [the track] for three months, be back, and then they'd call me in. And I'd be dirty again and have to do another six months or whatever."
This week, Dutrow joked, "I have been a jerk and a sleaze, but I'm not a sleazy jerk."
He took a shot at Smarty Jones' connections, saying he couldn't understand why that horse was breezed on a sloppy, sealed track at Philadelphia Park before the Belmont Stakes. The only problem? Smarty Jones never breezed on a sloppy track.
But most of what Dutrow has said along the trail this spring has been dead-on - about his horse and the competition - and is exactly the kind of thing a lot of trainers might say when the cameras aren't around. There's no Andy Reid-speak here.
"It's my personality typically, but this is so high-profile, I'm getting asked the questions and I answer from my heart," Dutrow said. "That's why I get in trouble so much. It doesn't bother me. This game is not about me. It's about Big Brown. I don't hear you asking me questions when I won a $25,000 claiming race the other day. Big Brown is the whole game, not me."
In person, Dutrow doesn't come across quite as boastful. He sounds almost sheepish as he explains how much better his horse is than the competition. The boasts naturally get the most play. However, Dutrow said he was very worried when he first saw the quarter crack in Big Brown's hoof the Friday after the Preakness, before his hoof specialist explained how it could be handled easily.
"You're going to be rooting one way or the other, and I think that's awesome," Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, said this week. "If there are fans who come out to see him lose, so be it. If they're detractors - at the end of the day, if the horse wins, they'll fall in love with the horse."
Tomorrow, Big Brown will have a new sponsor. Desormeaux picked up an endorsement from Hooters. A number of Hooters girls went by the barn Wednesday and posed with the horse. Dutrow didn't have anything to do with that one. He said he is more of a Scores guy.
If Big Brown wins the Triple Crown, breaking a three-decade drought, there inevitably will be talk of a movie.
"Seabiscuit's trainer later got suspended for a year," a reporter mentioned yesterday outside Big Brown's barn. "But that wasn't in the movie."