05/15/2008 12:00AM

Rick Dutrow's right-hand woman


BALTIMORE - Some people in the horse business are awfully good at what they do but never get lucky enough to be around a great horse.

Michelle Nevin has been lucky and good.

When she was in her mid-teens, growing up in her native Ireland, Nevin regularly exercised a steeplechase horse named Rough Quest. The horse later won the famed Grand National in England in 1996.

Late last November, Nevin was at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida, helping to get things ready for the winter, when her longtime boss and close friend, trainer Rick Dutrow, called from New York to say he was sending her a horse that might be a superstar. It was Big Brown.

"Rick said, 'Michelle, you're going to absolutely love him,' " recalled Nevin, 30. "When the horse got off the van, he was a good-looking guy, and then the first day I rode him, he had this beautiful stride. He was so cool, so easy. From that day on, I was mad about him."

In the half-year or so that has passed, Nevin has become a critical component in the success of Big Brown, the Dutrow-trained colt who will be heavily favored Saturday in the 133rd Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. Through the winter and early spring at Palm Meadows, and before and after his smashing Kentucky Derby victory on May 3 at Churchill Downs, it has been Nevin, and no one else, who has put the colt through his morning paces as his exercise rider.

Dutrow cannot say enough good things about Nevin.

"She's invaluable," said Dutrow, 48. "On top of the horses, she's excellent. She can tell right away if they're right or not. Off them, she's interested in the legwork, how they eat up, everything about them. She's very well-rounded."

Nevin and Dutrow both say she came to work for the stable when Dutrow's dormant training career was just starting to take off, in about 2001.

"I was in Barn 10 at Aqueduct, and she was working in Barn 11," said Dutrow. "We started dating. We dated for about three or four years, but after a while Michelle decided it wasn't right for her."

Despite the breakup, they have maintained a close relationship, both as friends and business associates. In late March, while Dutrow stayed behind in Florida to keep close tabs on Big Brown preparing for the Florida Derby, he sent Nevin to Dubai to oversee Benny the Bull and Diamond Stripes, both of whom won their respective seven-figure races. Perhaps more notably, Dutrow also entrusted Nevin with the care of his 13-year-old daughter, Molly, on the trip.

"Michelle is close with my whole family," said Dutrow. "With my daughter, my mom [Vicki], my brothers," trainers Tony and Chip Dutrow. "She's like part of the family herself."

Besides exercising horses, Nevin also serves as an assistant trainer, assuming the kind of tasks that Dutrow does not have time for, such as helping to oversee the other personnel in the huge stable.

"Every trainer needs good assistants," said Nevin. "The trainer has a lot of other things to take care of, like dealing with the owners, the condition book, keeping his eyes on the horses themselves. Rick needs to focus on the more important things and not have to worry about the little things."

Nevin's dedication stems from early childhood in County Tipperary, where her grandfather, a trainer, had a horse farm. Her father, Michael Nevin, was a jockey, then a trainer, and when Michelle was about 16, she came to the United States for the first time, working for another Irishman, Leo O'Brien, at Belmont and Saratoga. She went back home to Ireland, graduated school, then came back the following summer, eventually working for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin during a lengthy tenure that included two stints in Dubai.

"I've pretty much been here ever since," she said.

Her parents also moved to the States, with Michael Nevin training in New York with moderate success until retiring in 2004. He and his wife now live on a farm near Versailles, Ky. Michelle has one older sister who still lives in Ireland.

"I still go back every couple years," she said.

Dutrow said he is not as strict as some trainers regarding vacations and the like, and that Nevin can take time off when the situations allow. But at most times of year, with the stable being perpetually involved in major races, Nevin wouldn't think of being anywhere but at the barn, taking care of what needs to be done.

Walter Blum Jr., a well-traveled exercise rider who worked for Dutrow last winter in Florida and has moved with Big Brown to Kentucky and Maryland, has frequently worked alongside Nevin. Post-Derby at Churchill, it was Blum astride the stable pony while Nevin kept Big Brown in a relaxed jog.

"Michelle is one of the best exercise riders in North America," said Blum, the son of a Hall of Fame jockey. "She has great hands and gets along with pretty much every horse she gets on. She can do it all. She's amazing."

Michael Iavarone, whose IEAH Stables bought majority interest in Big Brown after the colt easily won his career debut last September at Saratoga, said this about Nevin: "You can't put into words the quality of her horsemanship, from breezing horses to taking care of them, especially when it comes to Big Brown, Benny the Bull, and Kip Deville. She's so good. Rick's got the utmost confidence in her, and so do we. She's a major reason for every bit of success that the Dutrow barn has had."

"I can honestly say I wouldn't be anywhere close to where I am without Michelle," said Dutrow.

Nevin said she has been "very fortunate" in racing and that the work has its own rewards. "Big Brown, Kip Deville, Benny the Bull, Diamond Stripes, Saint Liam, Sis City," she said, naming some of the Dutrow runners she has helped develop into stars in recent seasons. "It's fun hanging out with the good ones."

The ultimate payoff, she said, came when she saw Big Brown charging down the stretch in the Derby. "Walter and I watched on the racetrack, right near the finish line with the photographers," she said. "When I saw Big Brown all alone, I said, 'We're going to win the Kentucky Derby!' It was really a cool thing."