Veteran trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. announced his retirement Nov. 24, with recent maiden winner Iwillneversaynever the final horse he would saddle during a career that spanned 44 years.
"It's time," Stutts said as he walked towards the paddock prior to the sixth race at Calder Casino & Race Course. "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."
According to the Jockey Club Information Systems, from 1976 until present Stutts saddled 354 winners from 2,290 starters, with earnings of $4,826,138.
Born in the shadow of Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans in February 1938, Stutts helped with the running of a barn maintained 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 (Arkansas), 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."
Bennie continued work 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. He then embarked on a two-year stint in the military that took him away from 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% disability, which I appealed over the years."
Upon his return home to Florida, Stutts took the initial steps towards his training career by taking out his license and venturing out on his own in 1968.
"I was stabled at old Tropical Park," Stutts said. "And when this place (Calder) 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."
Recalling the nomadic life of his family as they followed the elder Stutts from track to track, Bennie decided to settle in South Florida.
"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."
The best horse to represent Stutts was Smooth Air, who won the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) in his 3-year-old debut and competed in both the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). He also won that year's Ohio Derby (gr. II).
Owned by Mount Joy Stable, Smooth Air won the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) as a 4-year-old and was then shipped to New York to finish second in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).
The owners decided to keep Smooth Air in New York and he was turned over to trainer Chad Brown, a decision that was fine with Stutts.
"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," Stutts said. "They were the first to give me some really good horses."
Noting the irony that his last horse was named Iwillneversaynever, Stutts said, "But I'm saying never. This is the end. It's time."