Dean Butler continues to win at Canterbury Park

By Katie Merritt

Dean Butler has been leading rider at Canterbury Park five times since 2009, most recently winning the title last year when he brought home 82 winners from 418 starters.  Throughout his career as a jockey he has dominated other race meets around the country as well, including Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing), where he was leading rider four times, and Atlantic City Racecourse. Over the winters, when there is no live racing at Canterbury Park, Butler rides at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.

Though Dean does not come from a family with a background in racing, he grew up only a couple of miles from one of the most esteemed racetracks in the country, Saratoga Race Course. He attended his first race there with his father when he was only 5 years old, and knew right away that he wanted to be a jockey. At the age of 16, he was working in the kitchen of a bar in Saratoga when one of the bartenders noticed his small build and suggested he go learn how to ride at Jack Van Berg’s farm. “She asked me if I ever thought about being a jockey and I was like ‘yeah, my whole life!’ ” said Butler.  She helped him get a summer job working on Van Berg’s training farm in New York, which turned into a full-time job in California after he graduated high school a few years later. “Jack taught me a lot,” said Butler, “I learned from the bottom up. I did everything. I remember the first time he ever threw me up on a horse it was a 2-year-old filly in a round pen. She was learning. I was learning. He legged me up, walked out, shut the door, and said ‘good luck, kid!’ That’s how I learned.”

In December of 1992, at the age of 21, Butler rode his first race at Aqueduct racetrack. Only a month later, in January 1993, he rode his first winner, Rexson’s Empress, at Suffolk Downs in Boston. Butler has looked up to several riders over the years. “Joe Hampshire and Tony Black were some of the best riders I ever came across. I learned by watching. I’d watch them and then I’d go and ask questions. When I did something wrong in a race, I’d give them a couple races to cool off and then I would go ask them what I should have done differently.”

Butler has learned from his equine counterparts, as well. “Horses have taught me to let them tell me how they want to run, where they want to be in a race. That’s how I ride a lot. I let the horse tell me. I try and become one with the horse and just feel what the horse wants.”

Dean learned his lessons well. He has reached many career milestones, most notably riding his 2000th winner at Tampa Bay Downs in April of 2016. That win came on a sentimental favorite, Impromptu, trained by Bernell Rhone. “Impromptu’s just a cool ol’ horse, I love riding him and he runs for me. You have to love those ones that go out there and try and do everything they can.”

Stakes winner Poor But Honest is another favorite of Butler. “I won my first stake on him. You always remember the first one!” Dean also rode Poor But Honest to a second place finish in the Mass Cap, only a few lengths behind the great Cigar. “We lead for most of the race,” he recalled, “And eight months prior to that, my horse ran for five thousand [in a claiming race]!”

Butler has enjoyed a lot of success as a jockey, and plans to continue that success in the coming years. But what would he be doing if he wasn’t a jockey? “I’ve actually thought about that. I like to cook. If I wasn’t a jockey, I’d be a cook!”

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