by Jim Wells
It is called the graveyard of champions, but Saratoga Race Track is also the birthplace of hope, where a boy’s dream flashed across his mind in vivid technicolor on his numerous visits there as a youngster.
His father sold programs there as a youngster himself, buying them for ten cents, selling them for a nickel more. Years later, the boy accompanied the father to Saratoga every day of the summer meet, absorbing the sights and sounds, the smells and wonders of the racetrack.
Just two miles from their home on North Broadway, Saratoga was a splendid place for a youngster during those magical days of the race meet each summer.
The jockeys, the colors, the horses. A boy’s paradise and the delivery of a dream that one day he, too, would get a leg up in this colorful world, ride into the winner’s circle and have his picture taken while smiling broadly aboard a handsome, glistening thoroughbred.
Dean Butler knew what he wanted to do even then. From a large Irish Catholic family in Saratoga Springs, he was the catcher on the high school baseball team whose compact size, at 72 pounds, required him to bounce his throws to second base. Yet, he was built perfectly to ride racehorses. An older brother Denis had a similar desire but outgrew his wish, and his father warned it could happen to Dean too.
Is it possible that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen by an act of will? Maybe so. Size was never an issue. Not even now, at 5-foot-3 and 108 pounds.
The Butler children were eight: Denis, Danny, Debbie, Dawn, Donna, David, Deidre and Dean, in that order.
Their home in Saratoga Springs was just a few doors removed on North Broadway from the stately residences of Ogden Phipps, Penny Chenery, Ralph Wilson and others. Two of Dean’s sisters, Debbie and Dawn, brought Chenery flowers the night before the 1973 Whitney Stakes, but it did not help her Secretariat, whose defeat the next day by Onion added one more illustrious name to the cemetery register.
Daily summer visits to Saratoga as a youngster proved productive later for Butler, opening doors that lead to other doors that opened also. He met riders, trainers and owners, digesting all they had to say, and when the time was right he went to work on the farm for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Butler’s parents, John and Ellen, asked one thing of him. Finish high school first. Upon graduation he bolted to California where Van Berg taught him the horse business from the ground up.
“I cleaned stalls, built fencing, mowed the lawn and learned about the horse. Then he started putting me on horses,” Butler said.
An early experience stands out. “He put me in a round pen with a two-year-old filly and said ‘good luck, kid.’ The two of us, horse and rider, learned together.”
As he learned, he got advice from trainers and riders, Mike Smith and Richard Migliore among many others. Shug McGaughey trained for Phipps and gave Butler, now 47, a few chances in New York. He rode his first races at Aqueduct. Smith and Migliore encouraged him to give Suffolk Downs a try, and he rode his first winner there in 1993, a horse named Rexson’s Empress.
His first stakes race was also a win….the Trenton Handicap at Garden State Park, on a horse named Poorbuthonest. He rode another race with Poorbuthonest and, carrying 107 pounds, finished second to the immortal Cigar, carrying 127 that day, in the Massachussets Handicap.
Butler went on to win four riding titles in Philadelphia and one at Atlantic City. He has won five at Canterbury Park, where he started the 2018 meet second in all-time earnings ($12,617,738), third in all time wins (740) and third for in the money percentage (52.31 percent).
He has ridden for numerous trainers at Canterbury since arriving in 2007; Bernell Rhone, Mac Robertson, Francisco Bravo among them.
“He has a good sense of pace,” said Rhone. “He knows when to speed up a horse or slow it down. And he stays strong because weight is never a problem with him.”
“A lot of people have helped me,” Butler said. “I’ve ridden for good trainers and been very fortunate to have done as well as I have.”
A vital component in his success, he says, has been his agent of nine years, Pete Antonucci, with whom he has more than a business relationship. “We have a friendship, a good one,” Butler said. “It’s almost like family, just a great team.”
And there is actual family, of course. “My parents and everyone else have been so supportive through the years,” he said. “My daughters, Kayleigh and Kendall, and for the last two and one-half years, Danielle Leroux and her daughter Isabella. “They are part of this honor, too,” he said.
The honor, of course, is his place in the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.