Bennie Stutts talks with the media on the Churchill Downs backside.

Bennie Stutts talks with the media on the Churchill Downs backside.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Strutting with Stutts

Trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. has his first Kentucky Derby starter at age 70.

For 70-year-old trainer Bennie Stutts Jr., coming to the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with his first starter, Smooth Air, is a bit like getting the chance to play in another major sporting event.

“I will tell you what I feel like,” said Stutts. “You know the Super Bowl? I am the third string quarterback that is starting in the Super Bowl. If anybody would have told me last year this time, ‘well next year you are going to be at the Derby’, I would have asked, ‘are you crazy?’ ”

Stutts, the son of a trainer, is a lifelong horseman who grew up on the backside of racetracks. He took out his trainer’s license in 1968, but considers Smooth Air, who won the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) and ran second behind Big Brown in the Florida Derby (gr. I), to be the best horse he has ever trained. He has trained four stakes winners, and all of them have been for Brian Burns’ Mount Joy Stables

“Here is the reason I am here, this is the exact reason--it is because of the horse,” said Stutts. “But the horse is a Florida-bred, and I race at Calder year round. It is natural the owner wanted me to have the Florida-bred.”

Partially because of his upbringing, Stutts made the decision years ago to be based in one locale. Although he has had offers to travel to racing circuits up North, he remained in Florida so he could raise his family in a stable environment.

“As a child, I lived in a house trailer,” he said. “My father trained horses, and we would go from one track to another like gypsies. My senior year of high school I wanted to play football, so I stayed down in Miami. Other than my senior year of high school and two years in the Army, I have been on the racetrack all my life. When I got out of the Army, I went back to the track. I walked through the gate, and I could smell the horse manure. ‘Home sweet home’ I said!”

Stutts is savoring his Derby experience, and one special moment for him came when ESPN took him to the winner’s circle for an interview.

"I kept from sobbing,” said Stutts, whose other trip to the Run for the Roses was in 1959 when he watched it on the hood of a car from the backside. “The only thing I said was, ‘I am in the winner’s circle, and I know my little horse is going to try. If he makes it, wonderful, but if he doesn’t, at least I can say I made it to the winner’s circle.’ It’s an emotional ride that I am on.”

The one downside to being in Louisville is that Stutts misses his wife of 40 years, Dianne, who will be making the trip from Florida later in the week for the big race. She will be joined by their two daughters, their sons-in-law, and four grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Smooth Air has settled into his accommodations at Churchill and is residing in Barn 35 with horses conditioned by Dallas Stewart, who also trains for Mount Joy. The only hiccup on the colt’s journey to Kentucky was the fact that Stutts wasn’t allowed to fly with him because he was inadvertently left off the flight’s passenger list.

“All I had been talking about for two weeks was flying with the horse,” said Stutts. “I don’t want to take my eyes off the horse. The horse is not excited at all; I am the one that is stirred up. This little horse doesn’t know he is a little horse. He is a giant little horse, and I have watched him improve from one race to the next.”

No matter what happens on the first Saturday in May, the son of Smooth Jazz has already provided his trainer with an experience many only dream of.

“The racetrack has a lot of ups and downs,” said Stutts. “I only want to remember the ups.”