08/06/2001 12:00AM

Kutz ready to quit watching and start riding


When Dean Kutz breaks heavy favorite To the Test from the starting gate in the first race Wednesday at Ellis Park, nearly 18 months of frustration will end for him. Kutz has not ridden since beginning a battle with cancer in the winter of 2000.

"Watching races has been really tough on me," Kutz, 44, said last weekend at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, where he was the guest of honor at the third annual Claiming Crown series. "All it does is make me want to get back out there even more."

Kutz's re-emergence represents yet another remarkable comeback in his star-crossed career. Kutz was born with one kidney. As a young child in his native North Dakota, he suffered severe frostbite that damaged his hands. Kutz underwent a kidney transplant in 1984 to replace his ailing remaining kidney. Before and after that surgery, he incurred a wide variety of injuries common to his profession.

But in February 2000, Kutz faced the most perilous time of his life: He was diagnosed with throat cancer. Following radical surgery in which his larynx was removed, his only method of speaking is with the aid of a hand-held, mechanical device.

In March at his Versailles, Ky., farm, where he already was exercising horses daily, Kutz said he was almost physically ready to attempt a comeback. But he wasn't mentally prepared.

Now, he's ready.

"I just thought it was time," he said Saturday at Canterbury.

During races, jockeys occasionally converse with or yell at each other, mostly to warn of impending danger. Kutz obviously will not be able to do that, but neither he nor Kentucky racing officials are overly concerned.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's not a major issue," said Ron Herbstreit, one of three stewards on duty at Ellis in Henderson, Ky. "His vast experience is more than welcome."

Kutz has ridden in 21,354 races and won 2,773 of them. His mounts have earned $32.5 million. Kutz has won riding titles at Canterbury in 1987 and 1988, and at the Turfway Park holiday meet in 1997 and winter-spring meet in 1998.

Kutz, whose agent is Buddy Fife, said he expects to ride part time during the remainder of the Ellis meet. He hopes to be in peak form by the time the Turfway Park meet begins Sept. 5.

When Kutz makes his first ride back Wednesday, he surely will be warmly received by the Ellis crowd. It will mark the third time this year that Kutz has been publicly honored, following the presentation of the George Woolf Award at Santa Anita in April and a special acknowledgement in the Canterbury winner's circle between races Saturday.

His comeback would be made even more special if To the Test, trained by Bernie Flint, can win. Kutz won with his first horse back after his kidney transplant in 1985 at Canterbury.

"It'd be great to do it again," he said.