While Saturday’s sixth race at Calder Casino & Race Course offered the promise of juvenile fillies heading to the turf while still in the early stages of their career, the human narrative of the race centered on longtime trainer Bennie Stutts, Jr., who started recent maiden winner Iwillneversaynever in what would be the final race of the 74-year-old conditioner’s career.
“It’s time,” Stutts said as he walked towards the paddock prior to the race. “I’m going to be 75 in February, and I think it’s time for me to have some fun away from the track for a while.”
Born in the shadow of Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans in February 1938, Stutts was immersed in the racing business at the youngest of ages, schooled in the daily deeds of running a barn by his father Ben and his two uncles, Harry and George.
“My father, who was born in 1908, was born and raised in Hot Springs, and the way the story goes, his older brother Harry was delivering papers on the track when this old trainer saw his small size and said ‘son, when you get done delivering those papers, I want you to come over and ride my old pony.’
“So my uncle watched and studied how to ride and gallop horses, and he was just a natural in the saddle. So he stayed on the track, and before long his brother, my father Ben, and then his younger brother George followed. And they all stayed on the racetrack.”
As did Stutts the junior, who worked long hours at his father’s barn while still finding time to star on his Coral Gables High School football team, scoring touchdowns in the storied Orange Bowl in Miami, before a two-year stint in the military took him away from his home, and his burgeoning profession.
“I was drafted in 1962 and got out in 1964. While I was in the Army I did get a little injury and was released with 10-percent disability, which I appealed over the years.”
Back at home in Florida, Stutts took the initial steps towards what would become a 44-year training career when first taking out his license and venturing out on his own in 1968.
“I was stabled at old Tropical Park,” Stutts said of his early days as a trainer. “And when this place opened in 1971, I would van horses over to run until I got stalls. I was on their first waiting list, but I did finally get stalls, and I’ve been here ever since.”
That decision, to remain in Florida year-round, was easy for Stutts, who recalled the difficulties of his own youth, moving about from track to track while following the nomadic life of his father.
“As a little boy, I remember crying when I had to change schools so many times,” Stutts said. “I lived in a house trailer until I was 14 years old. That part was tough for a kid. So when I got married to my wife Diane in 1968, I promised her that we’d stay in one place if possible, and we did.
“We raised two daughters. My youngest daughter graduated from college, and it was the proudest day. You could look at my face or my wife’s face and see us crying, watching her get her diploma. She was the first in the family to graduate from college. And I feel like I accomplished something; my wife and I worked hard to put her through school.”
While the college commencement of his daughter rates high on Stutts’ list of personal highlights, the professional high mark for the trainer was the horse Smooth Air. After breaking his maiden at Calder in his career debut, Smooth Air would go on to win the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes in his 3-year-old debut and would compete in both the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, while winning that year’s Grade 2 Ohio Derby.
“And before all of that, he was second in the Florida Derby, which put him in the Derby to begin with,” Stutts recalled. “On the racetrack, there’s an old saying that ‘all it takes is one.’ And that one horse made my whole career.”
After winning the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap as a 4-year-old, Stutts sent Smooth Air to New York for the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, where he was beaten a half-length for everything, finishing second.
“After that race, the owners Mount Joy Stables decided to keep him in New York with Chad Brown, which I understood,” Stutts said. “Chad happens to be a very good trainer, and I trained horses for 30 years before I ever won a stake, and it was because of Mount Joy that I was able to win a few. They were the first to give me some really good horses.”
But with those horses now gone and Stutts beginning to feel some of the ill-effects of a life spent on the track, in the military, or playing high school football, the final act has arrived and it is time for the curtain to fall.
“It’s gotten to the point that I do have some physical problems. I don’t want to name them, because there are too many, but it’s just too hard for me to get around,” Stutts admitted.
“And the only reason I was still in the business was my good friend Dominick Auricchio. He’s been a friend of mine over the years, and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have had any horses these days.”
And that scenario, a trainer without horses, is what Stutts found when he awoke Sunday morning faced with a life unfettered by the 365 day a year rigors of racetrack life.
“My daughter and son-in-law bought a beach home in St. Augustine,” Stutts said. “They’re renovating it now, and when it’s done, my wife and I are going to go up there and spend some time. Not too much time, because she has cats and you have to get home for the cats, but more time than we ever could with the horses.
“But before that, my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren were here to watch my last horse run, so we’ll spend some time together now that I’ve run the last horse I’ll ever run. And did you see the name of the horse I ran? The name of the horse was ‘Iwillneversaynever.’ But I’m saying never. This is the end. It’s time.”