The uncharming candor of Dutrow
To a nation of sports fans, Rick Dutrow is something of an anomaly. Daily, weekly, yearly, we are inundated with banalities from the athletes who play the games we love to watch, with the sort of one-game-at-a-time and the-good-lord-willing incantations that make your eyes roll. But in Dutrow, the trainer of Triple-Crown hopeful Big Brown, blunt candor has found a champion.
Here is a man who talks openly about his past as a drug abuser, who freely admits to administering steroids to each and every one of his horses and who, most conspicuously of all, is unafraid to proclaim the greatness of Big Brown. For more than a month, going back to the week before the Kentucky Derby, Dutrow has been making the very simple boast that there isn't a 3-year-old currently running who is capable of beating his colt. And so far, he's been right.
But something isn't right. In fact, it's very wrong. Dutrow's honesty would be admirable if it didn't belie something sinister. This is a man, after all, with a horse-racing rap sheet that reaches from the quarter pole to the finish line and just keeps going.
On the eve of the Derby, his record at the Association of Racing Commissioners International contained 72 citations for offenses both personal (marijuana is frequently mentioned) and professional (he's been fined or suspended at least once a year for the last eight years for doping horses with everything from vitamins to powerful painkillers). In Louisville last month, when Pat Forde of ESPN.com asked him why he had broken so many rules, Dutrow's reply was both brazen and cryptic: "Why? I couldn't answer that. I know I wasn't working right."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the answer of a man who knows he doesn't have to answer to anybody -- not to you or me, and certainly not to the fractured hierarchy of American racing, which seems more and more to be laughably inept at controlling the use of drugs in the game. Dutrow will say and do whatever he wants to because he can. In this light, his posturing during this year's Triple Crown season is much more than just trash talk. Indeed, Dutrow's smack is very much for real. He is Muhammad Ali without the self-mockery. He is Joe Namath without the swashbuckling charm.
The standard in sports for humility is very low. By accepting empty platitudes from our athletes, we endorse false modesty on a daily basis -- if only for the simple reason that there is something reassuring in the knowledge that at least duty has been paid to taste and good manners. Dutrow seems bent on judging both himself and his horse before anybody else has a chance to do so. That he doesn't feel the need to either observe the time-honored custom or avoid the sin of pride is profoundly troubling, and would seem to betray at least a partial lack of scruples. Do rules not apply to this man?
As a horseman, Dutrow is a craftsman of the highest order. He's shown a remarkable touch with Big Brown throughout the Triple Crown, treating his charge with a finesse that should pay big dividends Saturday -- the colt seems to have plenty in the tank for his toughest test. But while the horse may be worthy of our veneration if he wins, it would be hard to say the same about the trainer. Then again, Dutrow may take care of the veneration all by himself.