Two weeks after graduating from Saratoga Central Catholic High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1990, jockey Dean Butler drove cross-country by himself to work for Jack Van Berg, trainer of the legendary Alysheba.
“I had started taking Dean to the racetrack when he was 5, and he always wound up in the jockeys' room,” recalled his father, John “Ted” Butler. “He told me from the beginning he was going to be a jockey.”
More than a quarter-century later, the elder Butler struggled to keep his emotions in check after watching his 45-year-old son earn career victory No. 2,000 in Tampa Bay Downs' fifth race on the turf on Impromptu, a 4-year-old gelding owned by Empire Racing and trained by Bernell Rhone.
“I'm thrilled to death,” said Ted Butler, who was joined at Tampa Bay Downs by another son, Dan, one of Dean's seven older siblings. “It's not very often you can have an 87-year-old father watch his son get on a horse and reach 2,000 wins.”
For good measure, Butler followed up that triumph by winning the sixth race on 6-year-old Florida-bred horse Palace Barista for breeder-owner Lynne Scace and trainer Ray Stifano.
Butler, who has won four riding titles at both Philadelpha (now Parx Racing) and Canterbury and one at Atlantic City, admitted he was thinking of the milestone as he drove Impromptu to the finish. He shared a heartfelt embrace with his father after the race and was joined in the winner's-circle celebration by his fellow jockeys and track management.
“The main thing is, I just wanted to do it while my dad was here today,” Butler said. “He has been one of my biggest fans, and that makes it very special to me.”
Butler, the youngest of his family, had good vibes having Dan be part of the afternoon. “He always seems to bring me luck. The first time he ever came to the races was at Philadelphia in 1994, and I had five winners and one second from six mounts.”
Also enjoying the magical moment were Butler's girlfriend, Danielle Leroux, and her 2-year-old daughter. The jockey's daughters, 9-year-old Kayleigh and 5-year-old Kendall, were in school.
The three Butler men all experienced strong emotions thinking about Dean's late mother, Ellen, who died four years ago.
“We had a few tears in our eyes,” Ted Butler said. “She didn't like to watch the races a whole lot and didn't care too much when he fell, but she was the best woman in the world. She was so good to all our children.”
“She used to watch the races after they were run,” the rider recalled. “Early in my career, it seemed like every time my parents showed up, I'd get beat. Then one day at the Meadowlands, they didn't let me know they were coming, and they got there just as I was coming down the lane and crossing the wire.
“I know we all were thinking of her today.”
The entire family remains close, as Ted Butler travels the country to be with all eight children: here in the Tampa Bay area, Saratoga, Nashville and Myrtle Beach.
“His sister Debbie is really the one who helped get him started,” Ted Butler said. “One of her friends had a connection with Jack Van Berg, and it wasn't long before Dean was on his way.”
In his benchmark victory in the 1-mile turf claiming contest, Butler angled Impromptu over from the outside No. 10 post position and settled into second place behind pace-setter Rasta Friend. After that one tired, Butler secured the inside, gave his horse a breather and withstood major challenges from runner-up Ride Ride Ride and Johnny La Rue to post a half-length victory.
Impromptu paid $7 to win as the slight wagering favorite.
“The race went about the way we had talked about,” said Rhone, who has teamed with Butler at Tampa Bay Downs and Canterbury for scores of victories in recent years. “I'm glad because I wanted to be a part of his milestone.”
Butler, who is always among the first to say racing is “95 percent the horse, 5 percent the jockey,” felt confident throughout aboard Impromptu.
“He was laying pretty comfortably and had his ears pricked the whole way, just waiting for me to move on him,” Butler said. “Even when they kind of jumped on me around the 3/8-mile pole, I wasn't worried. He was just waiting on me, and when I moved on him he dug in and went on with it.
“Bernell has put me on a lot of good horses over the years, and we've always done well together. I can't thank him enough,” Butler added.
Butler is seventh in the Tampa Bay Downs 2015-2016 standings with 30 victories. His next stop is Canterbury in Shakopee, Minn., in pursuit of a 10th career meeting title.
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