Dean Butler’s youthful enthusiasm may be a byproduct of celebrating his 41st birthday Wednesday.
It’s also possible the veteran jockey has found his own version of the Fountain of Youth: Tampa Bay Downs, where he comes each winter to keep his skills razor-sharp for a run at another Canterbury Park title.
Butler celebrated his birthday in style Wednesday, winning the 10th race with a furious come-from-behind rally aboard the first-time starter Clontarf, a 3-year-old filly, for his mother-in-law and father-in-law, owner Cindy Rhone and trainer Bernell Rhone.
“I might be just reaching my peak,” said Butler, upon learning of his selection as Holiday Inn Express & Suites Jockey of the Month. “You’ve always got to look at your business, and if things slow down or you’re not doing as well and it’s taking a toll, it might be time to stop riding.
“Right now – knock on wood – I’ve been very lucky,” Butler said.
Butler also has been very good, and consistent, since starting his career at Aqueduct in 1992.
The native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. has won the past three riding titles at Canterbury in Shakopee, Minn. to go with the four he won earlier in his career at Philadelphia and the one he won at Atlantic City.
With 18 victories from only 113 mounts at the current meeting, Butler is in the top 15 in wins. As is his custom, he plans to pick up the tempo when Canterbury begins its 2012 meeting May 18, less than two weeks after the conclusion of Tampa Bay Downs’ live season.
“This is a real tough meet. You have riders and trainers come from all over, and your top five riders do very well,” Butler said. “But you can still make a living down here and pay your bills if you aren’t in the top five.
“Patience is the main thing – to kind of go with the flow, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s kind of a working vacation. The weather is beautiful, and the turf course is probably the best in the country. The dirt track is tiring and laboring on horses, but when they leave here they’re ready to run other places and they’re probably the fittest horse in the race,” Butler said.
Butler’s profile increased recently when he and trainer Bernell Rhone combined for nine victories during a recent hot streak. But Butler hasn’t reached 1,600-plus victories in his career by not spreading his wings.
On Sunday, he piloted the Derek Ryan-trained 3-year-old gelding Dubai Time to victory in a one-mile maiden turf race at odds of 15-1. Butler brought Dubai Time from off the pace before drawing off to a 2 ½-length victory.
“Dean is a very good turf rider,” said Bernell Rhone, who also uses him extensively at Canterbury. “What I like about his riding is he seems to know how fast horses are going on the front end, and he is able to adjust to that pace. Some riders will bury a horse on the front end by going a quarter in 21 (seconds) and change, but if he is on a horse with early speed he will back it up if he’s going too fast.”
Butler, the youngest of eight children, hung out at historic Saratoga as a kid, idolizing jockey Angel Cordero Jr. In 1986, he went to work for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg at the latter’s farm in Ghent, N.Y., where he learned to break 2-year-olds and gallop horses.
“It was a good two months before (Van Berg) even let me get up on a horse,” Butler said. “Then he legged me up on a 2-year-old filly, put us in a round pen and said ‘Good luck.’ She bucked me off right away, but it taught me a lot about balance and how to get a feel for a horse.”
The summer before his senior year of high school, Butler worked for Van Berg on the left coast in southern California. It was only a couple years after that he began riding races.
Butler won his first race in 1993 at Suffolk in Massachusetts, then moved to Philadelphia (now PARX Racing), where he would win four riding titles. Two years later, he was the rider on the prominent gelding Poor But Honest, a multiple-graded stakes winner who finished second to the great Cigar and Jerry Bailey in the 1995 Massachusetts Handicap.
Butler has endured his share of injuries through the years, including a nasty spill in 2000 on the Monmouth Park turf course which resulted in the lost of his front teeth, multiple back fractures and a concussion.
“I was lucky to live through that one,” Butler said. “When (paramedics) came and got me on the track they had to revive me, and they had to revive me again when we got to the emergency room door. I was on a respirator for four days. My parents stayed with me for about a week after I got out of the hospital, but my concussion was so severe I can’t remember them staying with me.”
Married to Cindy and Bernell Rhone’s daughter LeAnn, who is her father’s stable assistant, Butler has two daughters: Kayleigh, 5, and Kendall, who celebrates her first birthday Saturday. “LeAnn comes from an unbelievable family. I sure have gotten lucky,” Butler said.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, April 8 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.
Information on The Silks Poker Room can now be found on Bravo Poker Live at http://www.bravopokerlive.com
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