09/26/2004 11:00PM

Ex-jockey Kutz dies at 48

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Dean Kutz, the irrepressible jockey whose riding career was rendered all the more remarkable by the courage he displayed in overcoming numerous physical setbacks, died Sunday in Lexington, Ky., after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 48.

Kutz won 2,835 races in a career that dated to 1972, but it was his fighting spirit that allowed him to overcome his health problems and earned him countless fans and admirers. Kutz, who rode primarily in Kentucky and the upper Midwest, was especially popular at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, where he dominated racing during the track's halcyon days in the 1980's and is a member of the track's hall of fame.

Born in 1956 in Harvey, N.D., as one of 10 children, Kutz had only one kidney at birth, then suffered frostbite as a child, causing his fingers to be permanently disfigured. He suffered a multitude of riding injuries, underwent a kidney transplant in 1984, and lost his larynx to throat cancer in 2000, but always called himself a lucky man, mostly because of what racing had done for him.

Kentucky trainer Pete Vestal, a former boxer and football player, said of Kutz: "I've met a lot of tough individuals in my life, but Dean was the toughest human being I ever met."

Vestal, for whom Kutz rode such stakes horses as Williamstown, Mi Cielo, and Jaggery John, called Kutz "a great rider."

"I always felt like I had a chance when he rode one for me," Vestal said. "The really great thing about Dean was he never had a down day - or at least he'd never let you know it."

Kutz was active for many years with The Jockeys' Guild and was highly popular with his fellow riders, who voted him the George Woolf Memorial Award in 2001 and the Mike Venezia Award in 2002.

Kutz lived his final years on his farm in Versailles, Ky. He returned to riding in August 2001 after recovering from throat cancer and rode his last race in 2003.

A public memorial service was scheduled for Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the sales pavilion at Keeneland in Lexington.