Behind a Derby favorite, tragedy and redemption
By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY
LOUISVILLE — "We're live, babe!"
That's horse trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.'s stable-speak, his way of telling friends he expects his colt Big Brown to win the 134th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
For Big Brown, undefeated but having raced only three times, the Derby (4 p.m. ET, NBC; post time 6:04) is a chance to validate the hype that has made such an inexperienced colt the favorite among oddsmakers to win the most prestigious event in American horse racing.
For Dutrow, 48, the Derby is all that and much more: a potential validation of an unlikely resurgence, in work and in life.
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A decade ago Dutrow was at rock bottom, living in Barn 1 at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack and struggling to catch on as a trainer after a tragedy and a series of missteps. His girlfriend had been murdered in a Schenectady, N.Y., home while their toddler daughter was nearby. He had problems with drugs. And his father — a highly regarded Maryland horse trainer who would die of pancreatic cancer in 1999 — had disowned Dutrow, dismayed at the hard-partying son's inability to make something of himself.
"When I was living in the barn, it was my own doing," Dutrow recalls. "I was messed up. Everybody knew that, including me."
Today, thanks partly to Sandy Goldfarb, a commodities trader and horse owner who saw something special in the way Dutrow handled horses, Dutrow has found his niche.
He's a star trainer for International Equine Acquisitions Holdings (IEAH), a well-funded, 5-year-old stable for Thoroughbreds that has two horses among the 20 entered in Saturday's race, Big Brown and Court Vision.
And Dutrow, known in horse racing for his bravado, is doing well enough as a trainer that he's planning to wager $100,000 on Big Brown, a 3-1 favorite.
"What's most satisfying of all is I know I have the best horse in the race," Dutrow says of his blazing-fast colt, who has won his three races by a combined 29 lengths. "As long as he stays the way he is right now, we're going to be fully live, man!"
It's a sign of how far Dutrow has come since those difficult days in the barn at Aqueduct.
"I was living fast," he recalls. "I got myself involved in all sorts of nickel-and-dime scrapes. I would get myself into trouble with marijuana and cocaine. … I just hurt myself."
During that time, he had a relationship with Sheryl Toyloy, a woman in Schenectady. They had a daughter, Catherine, who was in a nearby room when three robbers broke into a home where she and her mother were staying. Court testimony indicated that one of those convicted in the case knew there was a safe in the house because he often went there to sell cocaine to Toyloy.
Toyloy was beaten and suffocated. Two of the attackers were sentenced to more than 70 years in prison; the third received a seven-year sentence as part of a plea bargain in which he testified against the others.
"I cried for a week. I liked the girl. She didn't belong going like that," Dutrow says of Toyloy, who was 29 when she was killed. "They beat her up really bad, and Molly (the name he and his family use for Catherine) was in the other room."
Philip Mueller, who prosecuted the case, says the evidence suggested the slightly built Toyloy had a violent struggle with her attackers, who "didn't appreciate how hard a person will fight when a child is involved."
Molly, whom police later found watching television in a side room several hours after her mother was killed, appears to remember nothing from the violence that was just a few feet away.
"From what I understand, when I was 2 years old there was an incident going on," she says. "We did have a break-in, and they got my mom. That's basically what I know."
Says Dutrow: "She knows something bad happened, but there are no side effects. Not one night did she wake up screaming. She asks me questions about her mom, what music she liked, but she hasn't asked why she got killed."
Dutrow still is shaken by the slaying and says the tragedy was a turning point for him. He says he began to accept more responsibility and kept Molly from foster care by proving he was her biological father, even though his name is not on her birth certificate.
Dutrow's mother, Vicki, is helping to bring up Molly, now 13. Vicki, 68, says Molly carries a picture of her mother. There are photos of Toyloy throughout their house in East Norwich, N.Y.
Molly says she is swept up in the excitement of Big Brown's bid to win the race at Louisville's Churchill Downs. She planned to arrive here late Friday.
The Derby along with the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore (May 17) and the Belmont Stakes in New York (June 7) make up Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. There have been 11 Triple Crown winners; the last was Affirmed in 1978.
"This is a dream come true for our entire family," Molly says of the Derby. "You don't even understand" how important it is.
Molly says she is particularly proud of her father for overcoming such adversity. "He started off low," she says, "but look at him now."
'Dad was a hard guy'
For all of Dutrow's recent success, there is some regret over his never-resolved falling out with his father, horse trainer Dick Dutrow. The father died of cancer after an eight-month illness in February 1999.
Dick Dutrow won more than 3,600 races in his career, including a then-record 352 in 1975. He often brought his three sons — Richard, Chip and Tony — to the barn, taking them from stall to stall to explain the needs of each horse.
He saw a potentially brilliant horseman in Richard, his son recalls today. But the father also saw a 10th-grade dropout and wasted potential and never could get past the disappointment over his son's lack of direction.
"He knew I could do it," Dutrow says now, "but he knew I wouldn't do it."
Even after it became clear that rapidly spreading cancer would claim his father's life, Dutrow recalls, too much had been said and done between the pair to allow a reconciliation.
"It didn't end up the way I wanted it to," he says, "but Dad was a hard guy."
'A horse in his past life'
Dutrow's training career finally took off after he met Goldfarb, who had the means and the desire to become a prominent horse owner. All Goldfarb needed was a trainer equally hungry for success, and he found one in Barn 1.
"I swear to you (Dutrow) didn't have $100 to his name," says Goldfarb, who is not an investor in Big Brown. "And if he had $100, he'd spend it feeding the horse rather than himself. That's what struck me about him. I knew he was a horseman."
Dutrow began using the eye for talent that his father taught him in acquiring sore and injured horses that could be turned into good runners with proper care.
"I think Rick was a horse in his past life," Goldfarb says. "He communicates with them like no other."
Goldfarb led New York Thoroughbred owners in victories for three consecutive years beginning in 2001.
"Sandy gave me an unbelievable amount of opportunity, which is all I needed," Dutrow says. "We were rolling, and we had a ball doing it."
The quality of his horses improved gradually, allowing Dutrow to develop 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam as well as Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Silver Train that year. With success came increased scrutiny.
Dutrow served a 60-day suspension in 2005 when two of his horses tested positive for a banned substance. He continues to proclaim his innocence, noting his other horses have tested negative.
"For me to load one up on drugs, I've never done that," he says. "That's not what I'm looking to do."
Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, acknowledges that rumors of illegal medications continue to surround Dutrow's operation despite what he describes as stringent testing of all trainers' horses.
"Until proven otherwise, he's got fast horses and he's done a good job with them," Violette says. "Until they have something on him, it's cocktail talk."
Dutrow was sidelined an additional 14 days and fined $25,000 in 2007 for violating conditions of his previous suspension by having contact with his stable.
His reaction? He and Jessica Capesky, 27, his girlfriend of four years, caught a flight to Rio de Janeiro and went to Carnival, a festival held each February.
Capesky describes Dutrow as a "big kid."
"He works hard," she says, "but he plays hard as well."
The parties Dutrow throws are legendary in racing circles. "I could go on for days. My wife could go on for days," says Goldfarb, 50, without elaborating.
It's safe to say that if Big Brown delivers on his vast promise with a victory Saturday, a boisterous, Dutrow-led celebration won't be far behind.
Big Brown made a stunning debut last September, when he dominated a 11/16-mile grass race by 11¼ lengths.
That prompted IEAH Stables to purchase a 75% interest in him from Paul Pompa Jr. for close to $3 million and assign him to Dutrow.
There have been questions about Big Brown, namely the problems with cracks in his front hooves that have limited his racing. The colt's three career starts mean he is short on racing experience; most of his Derby competition will have at least twice as many starts. Since 1900, only the filly Regret (1915) has won the Derby with as few as three previous races.
However, Big Brown has responded well to Dutrow's training — and to special glue-on horseshoes that provide comfort and protection — and has won his two races under Dutrow with ease. Those include a 5-length victory in the $1 million Florida Derby.
Molly might be Big Brown's biggest fan. She visits him whenever possible.
"He loves to play," she says. "He's getting very spoiled with all of the attention."
Dutrow is so consumed by his quest that he refused a seat on a private jet so he could accompany the 3-year-old colt on a separate flight to Kentucky from their training base in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Noting her dad's focus on the race at hand, Molly says she can picture herself at her father's side in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
"I know that we're going to win," she says. "It would just be a miracle for this family."