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Trainer rides the dream of a lifetime to first Derby

By Mike Berardino

Wire services

Even now, with the Kentucky Derby two days away, Bennie Stutts Jr. can hardly believe his good fortune.

Small-time trainers like him don’t get to saddle horses for the world’s biggest race. They just don’t.

Not when they only have six horses in their stable at Calder Race Course, where Stutts has been training since the place opened in 1971. Not when they get to be 70 years old with a bum hip and four grandchildren and modest goals at the start of each racing season.

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"This," Stutts says by phone from Churchill Downs, "is a dream that I gave up on 30 years ago."

The Derby? That’s for the rock-star trainers like Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher, not grinders like Bennie Stutts, better known around Calder as "Back-at-the-Barn Bennie."

And yet, wonder of wonders, Stutts has made it to Louisville after all, thanks to an undersized colt named Smooth Air.

Winner of the Hutcheson Stakes and second in the Florida Derby, Smooth Air is considered a long shot to win on Saturday. Yet he has never failed to hit the board in seven career starts, and the more you hear of Stutts’ story, the more you sense the hand of destiny.

"It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around," says Dianne Stutts, the trainer’s wife of 40 years. "It has a surreal feeling about it."

Not until after the Florida Derby made it official would Dianne Stutts allow anyone to call Saturday’s event anything other than "The KD" or "That Race in May."

It’s still hard for the family to refer to Saturday’s event without bursting into laughter. It’s almost as if the Stuttses want to hurry up and get this thing over with before some sort of clerical error is discovered and they are sent back home to South Florida.

Earlier this week, when the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a front-page feature on Bennie, both of his grown daughters called to tell him, "Daddy, daddy, we see you on the Internet."

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Now they’re in Louisville, too, joining their parents at every Derby party they can find, showing off the fancy hats their mother helped them pick out.

"Emotional," Bennie Stutts says of this week. "We’ve all been on a very emotional ride."

The dream dates back almost a full century. That’s how long the Stutts family has been in the game.

Harry Stutts, Bennie’s grandfather, got his start at age 10 delivering newspapers to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. From there he moved into riding and later training.

Generations later the Stutts clan is still haunting the backside.

George Stutts, Bennie’s uncle, trained at Calder. Charlie Stutts, his cousin, is still training in California.

Aside from his senior year in high school, when he played football at Coral Gables High, and a two-year stint in the Army, Bennie Stutts Jr. has been around tracks his whole life.

"Son," Bennie Sr. used to tell him, "if you take good care of your horses, they’ll take care of you."

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Since 1976, Stutts has saddled 2,075 starters and made it to the winner’s circle 309 times, totaling $3.69 million in earnings. But four decades of training have produced just four stakes victories.

All of them have come in the past decade and in connection with Smooth Air’s owner, Mount Joy Stables. Owner Brian Burns, a Chicago businessman, liked the veteran trainer’s straight-shooting style.

He has made some concessions to age, relying more on his staff than in the past, but he still rises at 4 each morning, still heads to the barn before sunup, still keeps a close watch on his horses. He laughs when the subject of retirement is raised.

"Trainers do not retire," he says. "They just die, that’s all."

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