Dean Butler was helping cook and wash dishes in the kitchen of a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., establishment where his sister Debbie worked as a bartender when he was “discovered.”
One of Debbie’s friends, who galloped horses for top trainer Jack Van Berg, asked the high school student if he had ever thought of being a jockey. Only since he was 5, Butler replied.
After the introductions were made, the 15-year-old Butler found himself on a farm in Ghent, N.Y., learning under Van Berg from the bottom up. It was 1986, the summer before the future Hall of Fame trainer would saddle Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba.
It was a couple of months before Van Berg even let Butler get on a horse. “I walked horses, built fences, whatever was needed,” Butler said. One day Van Berg put Butler on a 2-year-old filly in a round pen and left the aspiring jockey to learn the hard way, bruises and all.
The next two summers, Van Berg and his then-assistant, Dennis Werre, took Butler to Las Flores Ranch in southern California to continue his education. By the time he graduated from high school, there was no doubting Butler wouldn’t be spending more time as a dishwasher.
Since launching his career in New York late in 1992, the ultra-consistent Butler has ridden 1,705 winners, with career mount earnings approaching $26-million. He has enjoyed 10 seasons with 100 or more victories, including four in a row from 2008-11. And with eight victories from 41 mounts since March 1, Butler has been named the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month.
Butler, who won Wednesday’s sixth race on 5-year-old mare Sarafina for his father-in-law, trainer Bernell Rhone, and owner Sugartown Stable, has won 29 races at Tampa Bay Downs this meet from 169 starters, a 17.2 winning percentage that trails only Daniel Centeno and Angel Serpa among jockeys with at least 100 mounts. “Dean is a pleasure to work for,” said his agent, Pete Antonucci. “Horses run well for him, he keeps his appointments and he shows up on time. He’s an agent’s dream.”
The majority of Butler’s winners have been on horses trained by Rhone. But Butler has also enjoyed success this meet for Lynne Scace, Robert O’Connor, II, Charles Harvatt and Robert Raymond. “I’m fortunate enough that they’ve had their horses in the right spots and we’ve been able to get the job done,” Butler said. “To win races for trainers with smaller stables is very gratifying. Everyone wants to make money and win races, and you can see how much they appreciate it.”
One of Butler’s biggest scores for Rhone came in October of 2011 in the Remington Park Oaks, when he rallied Tourmaline to a half-length victory at odds of 25-1. He considers Tourmaline among the best horses he has ridden, but his fondest race-riding memories revolve around a multiple-stakes winner named Poor But Honest, who took a 24-year-old Butler on a journey he’ll never forget in 1995.
Owned by Vincent Scuderi and trained by Juan Serey, Poor But Honest and Butler won a pair of Grade III stakes that year; finished second in the Grade I Philip H. Iselin at Monmouth and the Grade I Meadowlands Cup; and were second to future Hall of Fame horse Cigar and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk.
Poor But Honest and Butler led at the top of the stretch before Cigar exploded past them on his way to a four-length victory. But Butler had huge dreams for the first mile of the mile-and-an-eighth event.
“I basically started my career at Suffolk, and I knew the farther out you went, the sandier the track got,” he recalled. “So I went to the three or four-path and stayed there, knowing if (Bailey) went outside me, he was going to have to work. That was the first time, I think, Jerry actually reached back and got into Cigar, because I was making him work harder.
“Jerry Bailey said to me, ‘You knew what you were doing putting me out there, because you knew the way the track got real sandy there.’ That was my philosophy, that I was going to make him work, but when it came down to it, (Cigar) was the better horse. But at the time I was young, and I thought I could beat him,” Butler said.
The week of March 18-24 was more eventful than most for Butler and his family. That Thursday, Dad turned 42; on Sunday, he was in the middle of the preparations for daughter Kendall’s second birthday.
“I made a Bundt cake for Kendall that has been in our family for as long as I remember, a chocolate cake with chocolate chips in it and vanilla frosting,” Butler said, smiling. “I make it the best of anyone.”
Off the racetrack, Butler is the quintessential family man. He and his wife LeAnn have two daughters – Kendall and Kayleigh, 6 – and LeAnn’s parents are trainer Bernell Rhone and his wife, Cindy. “LeAnn is unbelievable – as my wife, the mother of our children and my best friend. We make a good team,” Butler said.
The native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who has won eight riding titles – four early in his career at Philadelphia (now Parx Racing), three at Canterbury in Minnesota and one at Atlantic City – deflects the credit for his success.
“I’ve always said that it is 95 percent the horse and 5 percent the rider,” Butler said. “We only weigh 100 pounds, and we can’t pick up a 1,000-pound horse and carry them. And where the 5 percent usually comes in is when one of us (jockeys) messes up and gets beat.”
Thoroughbred racing resumes Friday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 31 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.