Dean Butler doesn't mind if you think he's hard-headed for continuing to ride Thoroughbreds at 48. Basically, he agrees.
“I've had nine concussions in my career. My head has taken a pretty good beating,” said Butler, who was born and grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Butler was named to ride three horses today, but he didn't get the chance. Today's third-through-ninth races were cancelled because of heavy rain and lightning throughout the Tampa Bay area. The decision was made for the safety of the horses, horsemen, jockeys and patrons.
All wagers on any of the cancelled races are, of course, refundable.
Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m.
Slightly less than two years ago, Butler incurred three fractured vertebrae in a spill at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn. His injury did not require surgery, but a routine examination that included a brain scan led to doctors discovering a basilar tip brain aneurysm, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Butler underwent a procedure in September of 2017 in which doctors inserted flexible metal coils to 'correct” the aneurysm and a stent to hold the coils in place. And, wouldn't you know it: he was able to return to work in time for the 2017-2018 Tampa Bay Downs meeting.
He points out that had he not gone down in the Canterbury race, the aneurysm probably would not have been found and could have ruptured at a future date.
OK, you still don't get why he stays at it. … but then, you aren't a jockey. And the explanation is pretty simple, really.
“I love what I do, I love the horses and I love the competition,” said Butler, the Senor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month at Tampa Bay Downs. “And I like working with the horses to see what I can do to help get the most out of their ability.
“It's something I've always wanted to do since I was a little kid, so basically I'm living my dream. As long as I'm fit and I'm feeling good and I still enjoy what I'm doing, I'm going to keep going with it.”
Butler, who has ridden 2,210 career winners, has won 10 track riding titles: five at Canterbury, four at Philadelphia (now Parx Racing) and one at Atlantic City.
He enjoyed a moment few athletes get to experience last September when he was inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame. The ceremony took on greater meaning with his father Ted and his brothers Denis, Danny and David in attendance.
“That was the first time my dad was ever at Canterbury, which made it really cool,” Butler said. “He's 90 now and in really good health, and I'm thankful he's still able to watch me ride.”
Displaying a flair for the dramatic, Butler rode two stakes winners on the day following the induction ceremony. Butler's father and brother Danny were also at Tampa Bay Downs three years ago when he notched career victory No. 2,000 on then-4-year-old gelding Impromptu.
Although he doesn't have the volume of business at Tampa Bay Downs as in Minnesota, Butler has taken the past few weeks to remind bettors and fans that his skills haven't eroded. Five recent victories, including four for trainer Bernell Rhone, earned him the SenÞor Tequila Mexican Grill honor.
Butler accepts that his business will be a little slower in Oldsmar, which allows him to spend more time with daughters Kayleigh, 12, and Kendall, 8. His passion for the job hasn't diminished; make a road trip to Shakopee this summer to see for yourself, if you'd like.
“Some of the younger riders might look better, they might look stronger, but the knowledge and experience I have can overcome that,” said Butler, who began his career in 1992 at Aqueduct after absorbing early lessons from Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.
“The more you ride, the more you get to know how much horse you have underneath you and how fast you're going (early in a race), and those are huge advantages,” Butler said.
It's said that time waits for no one, but in a sport where youth cannot be denied, Butler is one of at least a half-dozen older (read: 45-and-up) Oldsmar jockeys who still can bring it, using both strength and finesse as called for.
“I've always been the type of rider who usually lets the horse do most of the running and lets them tell me how they want to run,” Butler said. “Then when I pick them up and ask them, hopefully they're underneath me and they run for me.”
Sounds like the type of thrilling experience anyone can relate to.
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