Rick Dutrow Jr. watched one horse race in New York on his TV while keeping an eye on half a dozen others walking laps around Barn 6 at Gulfstream Park.
Dutrow trains more than 100 horses nationwide. They are his 1,200-pound athletes, and he is the coach. That's a lot of thoroughbreds to nurture, especially when the conversations tend to be one-sided.
But Dutrow knows the personalities of each of his horses. One has him particularly intrigued. Radiohead, a chestnut colt named after a rock band, was the one strutting as his stablemates strolled on a breezy afternoon at Gulfstream. The 3-year-old seemed aware of the growing buzz about him, that he is picked as one of the favorites for Saturday's Florida Derby, that he's gaining Kentucky Derby credibility.
"He's a cool, happy, curious horse,'' Dutrow said. "He's very proud of himself. He's game, you know. He's game for an idea. He knows he's going to have to show he can run against good horses.''
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As always, the Florida Derby will be a proving ground. While the hot horse of the season, Eskendereya, will not race Saturday after his owner decided to enter him in the Wood Memorial instead, the field is bulging with potential.
The Florida Derby will provide some clarity on the male horses for a sport that is riding on the star power of the fillies dominating the winner's circle, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.
Filly Amen Hallelujah, like Radiohead trained by Dutrow and owned by IEAH Stables, is a favorite in Saturday's other big race, the Bonnie Miss.
"She looks like the one to beat,'' Dutrow said of the Florida-bred Amen Hallelujah. "She's ready to roll.''
But what about Radiohead? The colt was born in England and won the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot as a 2-year-old before IEAH president Michael Iavarone bought him and moved him here. He has never raced the mile and one-eighth distance, nor has he encountered two turns in a race.
He won a Feb. 27 one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream, his first on dirt by 3“ lengths with a sharp finishing kick. And he has overcome a quarter crack injury to his left front hoof, which Dutrow downplayed as "no problem.''
Radiohead has some eerie similarities,'' Iavarone said, to IEAH-owned and Dutrow-trained Big Brown, the super horse of 2008 who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before his baffling last-place finish at Belmont, when jockey Kent Desormeaux put the brakes on him.
Big Brown won a one-mile, one-turn race at Gulfstream in the early spring of 2008. He had a hoof crack. He drew the disadvantageous outside post for the Florida Derby, as has Radiohead. Big Brown won the Florida Derby by five lengths.
"Big Brown had run grass, went to dirt, and won his first Gulfstream race in almost the same time, at the same distance and the same date as Radiohead,'' Iavarone said. "Radiohead is green. He's learning. There's no dirt racing in Europe, so you buy on pedigree and hope he can handle the dirt, and we've been pleasantly surprised. But he's up against a lot of speed in this race.''
Dutrow compares the Florida Derby paths of Radiohead and Big Brown, but said the two horses are quite different.
"Big Brown was bigger and Big Brown was laid-back,'' Dutrow said. "This guy is not. He'll try to take a chance and bite you. Big Brown wouldn't do that. But everyone in the barn likes him. Three months ago we didn't see the Radiohead we see now. He wanted things his own way. We've settled him in, kept good hands around him, showed him he doesn't have to be in such a hurry. He's become more manageable and adaptable.''
Dutrow believes Radiohead, a son of Johannesburg, has Triple Crown-level talent but needs to demonstrate his stamina. Jockey Edgar Prado wound up riding Radiohead to his Feb. 27 win only after Julien Leparoux declined Dutrow's invitation and rode stablemate Homeboykris instead.
"Edgar doesn't think Radiohead will have a problem going farther and neither do his exercise riders,'' Dutrow said. "I would like to see him finish no worse than third. If he gets a little tired I understand.''
Radiohead's performance will indicate whether he's Kentucky Derby-worthy.
"Right now he's interesting,'' Dutrow said. "How far can he go and how well can he take things that come up? We would have six weeks to train him and map out a plan for the Kentucky Derby.''
Iavarone would love to see the "eerie similarities'' to Big Brown continue, except for that bizarre ending at Belmont. Big Brown is now a stud horse at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky, earning a $55,000 fee. He will travel to the Vinery, a breeding farm in Australia, this summer. "He's got the life we all want to live,'' Iavarone said.
Big Brown is one of the success stories of IEAH, which Iavarone estimates has invested more than $100 million in horses since 2003.
"We took advantage of the weakness in the thoroughbred economy and bought some good horses at good prices,'' he said. "We're looking to win on big days.''
Iavarone, partial to Versace sunglasses, and the plain-speaking Dutrow have a combustible relationship.
"Like any dysfunctional family we have our ups and downs,'' Iavarone said. "We coexist. Every horse Rick puts on the racetrack performs well. He's the best horseman I've ever been around.''
Dutrow sums up the partnership this way: "Like always, I'd rather work with the horses.''
Radiohead fills both men with anticipation. But they know strange things can happen, as was the case with Big Brown, the favorite who was pulled up at Belmont. Was it the hoof crack that bothered him? Or a loose shoe? Desormeaux's strategy? It's an enduring question mark in racing.
"I'll never know, but I don't think the shoe had anything to do with it,'' Dutrow said. "Maybe a combination of things. It was a really hot day. Horse and rider is a place you could start. I still don't know what Kent did. My daughter could have ridden him better going into the first turn. But I haven't watched a re-run. I'm done with that.''
Iavarone doesn't like to make excuses.
"He lost,'' Iavarone said. "Three races in five weeks? Kent doing the right thing or the wrong thing? I'm not going to judge. It will be a mystery forever.''