09/29/2011 2:04PM

In Flat Out, Dickey finally has his big horse

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Scooter Dickey has Flat Out in peak racing condition after an injury-riddled stretch that saw the horse make just three starts from April 2009 to May 2011.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – After a half-century in racing, most of them as a trainer, Charles “Scooter” Dickey sent out all of five winners in 2007 and two in 2008. His career arc wasn’t arcing very high in his sunset years, and with his wife, Dana, struggling at home with a debilitating disease, the prospects for reviving a stagnant career were dim.

“Times were pretty tough,” said Dickey, a 70-year-old native of Kansas who said he got a nickname that stuck because he scooted and didn’t crawl as a baby.

But one good horse has changed Dickey’s outlook: Flat Out, who stamped himself this summer as one of the top older horses in North America and could hit even greater heights Saturday as one of the favorites in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in New York.

A 6 1/2-length winner of the Grade 2 Suburban in early July at Belmont, Flat Out has since finished second in the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga. He earned Beyer Speed Figures of 113, 106, and 109 in those three races, and with Tizway, who defeated him in the Whitney, having been declared out because of a recent fever, Flat Out looms an even bigger player in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

A 5-year-old Florida-bred, Flat Out has overcome numerous physical problems to reach such prominence. He has raced just 11 times, owing largely to nagging quarter cracks that Dickey said are “pretty much behind us.”

After Flat Out won his second start in a December 2008 maiden race at Fair Grounds, Dickey allowed himself to start dreaming big.

“Early on, he told us Flat Out was the best horse he’d ever had,” said his daughter, Dedre Morse. “But you know how the racetrack works. You would never say something like that too loud.”

In just his third start, Flat Out won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park in January 2009, sparking talk of the Kentucky Derby. But a rough start led to a fourth-place finish in his next race, the Southwest Stakes, and he finished sixth in the Arkansas Derby that April. A stress fracture was discovered in Flat Out’s shoulder shortly after the Arkansas Derby, beginning a long road to recovery in which he would make only one start between April 2009 to May 2011.

“He came out of the Southwest with a crack in that right front,” Dickey said. “We had it patched, but later on he blew out the patch, and you could see the integrity of the hoof had been undermined. It had to be cut away from the inside out. That’s why it took so long to get him back. At that point you just have to quit on them and let the foot grow back.”

Quarter cracks are painful cracks or fissures that affect the hoof and/or heel area. They hinder a horse’s ability to perform at peak level, and patching them or giving them time to heal can adversely affect a horse’s training and racing schedules. At one point, Dickey said, Flat Out’s feet were so bad that he trained in four bar shoes. The right front was particularly affected.

Dickey credited four people for helping Flat Out return better than ever: Rich Decker and Frank Betancourt, the racing manager and farm manager at Preston Farm in Paris, Ky.; farrier Tom Wildy; and assistant trainer Walter Aguilar.

Wildy called on all his craftsmanship to get Flat Out’s injury squared away. He did not begin working on Flat Out until the horse was stabled at Fair Grounds in his home base of Louisiana in the winter of 2010-11.

“He’d just torn a new quarter crack in January,” said Wildy, 56. “We changed some shoes on him and put him in the four bars, which is quite unusual in my 30-plus years of shoeing horses. He’s quite special. He lands a little different, so we changed him up to kind of accommodate all that.”

Dickey has had Wildy fly in from New Orleans for regular shoeings and to ensure that all is well with Flat Out. On Monday, Wildy flew to and from New Jersey to fit Flat Out with his racing plates for the Gold Cup.

“Right now is the best I’ve ever had him,” Wildy said. “The cracks are of no concern. My concern is just in keeping him where he can be comfortable. He’s just an outstanding horse. For grit and determination, he’s at the top of my list. He can really take it. All the care, concern, and time that Mr. Preston, Rich, and Scooter have given the horse is really coming back to show itself.”

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Flat Out is owned by the Preston Stables LLC of retired Texas oilman Art Preston, whose highlights as a longtime horse owner came as a partner in Victory Gallop, winner of the 1998 Belmont Stakes, and Da Hoss the two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. During Flat Out’s vacations at Preston Farm, Preston said the stable had an opportunity to send the horse to another trainer. But they decided against it.

“In the final analysis, Rich [Decker] said, ‘You know, this horse is going to need a lot of TLC. We should just leave him with Scooter. He knows him and will do right by him.’ ” Preston said. “And that’s the long and short of it. I’ve only known Scooter for just a few years. Obviously, he’s done well by the horse.”

Dickey has won approximately 800 races (statistics before 1976 are incomplete) while training such useful stakes horses as Win Flyer, Crude Ways, Thesaurus, On a Soapbox, Haveagreatdate, and Kingship. Still, he rarely has participated in races as rich and prestigious as the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Dickey said Flat Out’s Suburban victory was probably the first graded stakes win of his training career.

Like any 70-year-old trainer, the story of Dickey’s life and career is long, involved, and mixed with a sometimes staggering number of ups and downs. He talks fondly of his earlier days, both as a jockey and trainer. Before he turned 16, he was riding unsanctioned races before graduating to “the parimutuels,” as he calls them, in 1957. He rode Appaloosas and Quarter Horses for several years in Kansas and surrounding states, making lifelong contacts with trainers such as Frank Kirby, Don Von Hemel, Glenn Hild, Gary Thomas, and Clyde Rice.

Dickey said D. Wayne Lukas, the eventual Hall of Fame trainer of Thoroughbreds, would haul in his Quarter Horses when Dickey and jockey John Lively were top riders at those bush tracks.

“There was one year where pretty much every track we went, John won every futurity [for 2-year-olds] and I won every derby [for 3-year-olds],” Dickey said. “Wayne wasn’t raising much hell then, I don’t think. He and I still talk and laugh about those days.”

Dickey got his trainer’s license in 1963, after he got too heavy and quit riding to get his high school diploma. That was also the year the Dickeys were married, when Scooter was 21 and Dana was 16. While keeping a home base in Kansas, the early days were a struggle, with Scooter training horses at obscure outposts in Denver, El Paso, and Winnipeg, among others. After 15 years (1970-85) on their farm in Wellington, Kan., from where Scooter still traveled to race primarily on the Nebraska and Chicago circuits, they moved around until settling into their nicely appointed Louisville home in 1998. Before her illness, Dana was extremely active, raising their two children, Dedre and Tyler, while also taking care of much of the farm work and the stable’s bookwork and bills.

By the fall of 2007, Scooter’s stable was so depleted that he accepted a salaried job at a breeding farm in Midway, Ky., with the ill-fated Stonewall Stations of Richard Haisfield, a venture that soon ended in bankruptcy and controversy. Dickey lasted a few months, got two months’ severance pay, and came home to Dana one winter day to try to figure out what to do next.

“I think I had one horse boarded out on a farm,” Dickey said.

Complicating his life was the illness that has beset Dana, who since the mid-1990’s has had primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), an autoimmune disease that slowly destroys the small bile ducts, causing bile to build up in the liver. Besides the esophagus and liver, the thyroid also can be affected. PBC patients must also deal with the side effects from the numerous medicines they are required to take.

The Dickeys become stoic when talking about how Dana nearly died twice soon after the illness was diagnosed.

“When they were first treating her, [on two occasions] she had varicose veins burst in her esophagus, and she started bleeding very badly internally,” Morse said. “It was really scary for us all.”

“She almost bled to death,” Scooter said, describing the intense procedures required to save her. “We almost lost her.”

In recent years, Dana’s condition has stabilized, and she lives what the Dickeys say is a fairly normal life. Their insurance coverage has mitigated what could have been a financial disaster, although the out-of-pocket monthly bills for her medicine are more than $1,600, even with insurance.

“I start Medicare next month, so that will be a huge help,” Dana said.

Morse said that, in spite of the spotty income and the cost of Dana’s medicine, her parents have always somehow survived financially.

“They both have always been really, really good when they needed to cut down and manage their money,” she said. “When they sold the farm in Kansas, they didn’t blow the money. They’ve always lived well within their means, done it smartly. Dad also owned a part of a horse here or there, and it seems like whenever they needed one to do well, it has. I’m not saying they’ve had a lot, because they’ve had some really tough years and had to sweat things out.

“That’s what makes all this with Flat Out so great,” she said. “They’ve both worked so hard for so many years and never gave up, whether Dad had 30 horses or two. We’re all so happy he’s finally getting to see the game from the fun side of it. We’re all really enjoying it.”

Flat Out, who has spent the summer at Monmouth Park when overseen by Dickey and Aguilar, was scheduled to ship Wednesday into the Shug McGaughey barn at Belmont, alongside Big Drama, who will run Saturday in the Vosburgh. Dickey said he and his family are eager to see how the most dramatic chapter in his story unfolds Saturday in New York and five weeks later in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, when many of their friends and neighbors will be on hand to watch Flat Out at Churchill.

“Every horse trainer wants to have one as good as Flat Out,” Dickey said. “Now that he’s healthy, it’d be great to see him go on and run big in these next two. It’s what you work your whole life for.”