LOUISVILLE — At least outwardly, the recent swirl of visitors at his Churchill Downs barn hasn't fazed Charles "Scooter" Dickey in the least. And if the 70-year-old trainer is feeling the strain of having Grade I-winning Flat Out among the top contenders for Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, his welcoming demeanor is an Oscar-worthy cover.
A trainer with a five-horse barn would have every right to be overwhelmed if faced with prepping one of his charges for the richest race in North America.
But for Dickey, that scenario doesn't represent pressure so much as it does a culmination of decades-long perseverance.
Five years ago, with only one horse in his barn, Dickey left the backstretch he had been part of since the 1960s to briefly become manager and trainer for the former Never Tell Farm outside Versailles.
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"I really didn't want to do that, but I thought it was for the best," Dickey said. "I thought it would be better to have a paycheck coming in every day that I knew wasn't going to be up or down or owing the feed man."
Dickey recalls his few months with the operation vividly because it is in such contrast to where he is now — the trainer of one of the top handicap horses in the nation, the man who helped keep together the talented but fragile horse who once struggled just to stay on the track.
Flat Out and Dickey are the classic made-for-each-other match, both overcoming daunting hurdles to gain recognition.
When the now 5-year-old Flat Out first came into Dickey's life in 2008, he was one of several horses owner Art Preston sent the trainer's way, helping reignite the Louisville resident's training career. But before Flat Out could become Dickey's first graded-stakes winner and the best trainee he's ever laid hands on, he put all of his trainer's horsemanship and patience to the test.
After putting himself on the Triple Crown trail with a win in the Smarty Jones Stakes, Flat Out's career nearly was derailed by chronic foot problems and a hairline fracture in his shoulder that sidelined him from April 2009 until December 2010.
Months of seeking proper farriers for his feet and not giving up on his inherent talent came together in 2011 for his connections. Flat Out has won the Grade II Suburban Handicap and, most recently, the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, with a pair of runner-up efforts in the Whitney and Woodward in between, to set up his start in Saturday's Classic.
"It really is the topping, as you say," Dickey said. "Any kind of stakes race or even just winning a race is fun, and everyone is always happy when you win. But this is what you always dream of, winning the top races. This would really be special. It makes you really enjoy the game."
The most horses Dickey ever had at one time was about 35, back when he had a split string at Ak-Sar-Ben and Canterbury Downs. Having more clients would have generated more money and opportunities for better stock, but Dickey's boutique barn is what helped convince Preston and racing manager Rich Decker to keep Flat Out in his care.
"(Dickey) had him before his injuries, and then, when it came time to send him back, we considered a lot of other (trainers)," Preston said. "Actually, Rich helped make the decision pretty well, the suggestion that the horse had a lot of problems and that he needed a lot of TLC.
"Scooter doesn't have many horses, and we knew he'd give him the attention he needs."
In return for Dickey giving Flat Out the chance to prove himself, the earner of more than $1.1 million has provided an emotional lift to the conditioner and his family.
Since the 1990s, Dickey's wife, Dana, has battled primary biliary cirrhosis, an autoimmune disease that slowly destroys the small bile ducts, causing bile to build up in the liver. She has been on the list to get a liver transplant for well over a decade, and the medicine that has helped keep her alive is reaching the end of its effectiveness.
"The doctors are trying to figure out new medicine," Dickey said. "She's on the transplant list but, until the medicine completely quits helping her, she won't move to the top of the transplant list. But she won't let you know she's sick. To see her, you wouldn't know."
With all the family and friends coming to town for Flat Out's Classic run, Dickey has been in a losing battle with Dana in his quest to get her to slow down. After years of watching her husband pay his dues for the game he loves, she wants everything in order should this fairy tale have another chapter to it.
"Scooter worked his whole life for this. It means everything to him," Dana said immediately after the Gold Cup. "It gives all the guys hope who think they don't have hope. I know because we didn't think we had hope either. But we do."