Dean Butler wasn't born into a horse-racing family. Still, as a kid growing up in the sport's equivalent of a company town -- in this case, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. -- the allure of the racetrack got into his blood before he was old enough to place a bet.
Butler lived 2 miles from the storied Saratoga track and four houses down from the Phipps family, a royal dynasty in American racing. He idolized jockeys Angel Cordero Jr. and Richard Migliore. His greatest wish was to stay small enough to ride like them one day, to know the thrill and the challenge of unlocking the horsepower inside a thoroughbred.
Now in the 20th year of his career, Butler has become a very big presence in the saddle at Canterbury Park. During a 62-day season that begins Friday night, he will try to win his fourth consecutive riding title at the Shakopee track. After winning 83 races last summer -- his most ever at Canterbury -- Butler enters this season as one of the most consistent jockeys in the track's history.
He also has married into a racing family. Butler's wife, LeAnn, is the daughter of Canterbury Hall of Fame trainer Bernell Rhone and an assistant for his stable. Their two little girls have inherited their love for horses, delighting a dad who wasn't born to the sport but still feels like a native son.
"I feel very, very lucky and blessed," said Butler, 41. "I married into a great family, and I love coming to Canterbury. Riding was always my dream. Not many people get to do what they love every single day."
Rhone admits he wasn't wild about the idea of his daughter marrying a jockey, only because he wanted her to be spared the nomadic lifestyle. Still, it doesn't hurt to have a son-in-law who is among the most skilled riders at the track.
Maturity and experience have enhanced Butler's horsemanship, Rhone said, and his sound judgment -- combined with his understanding of how to get the best out of a horse -- have brought him steady success. Butler has won $4.8 million in purses in five seasons at Canterbury, fifth-most in track history. His horses have finished in the money 53.9 percent of the time, ranking him No. 2 in that category, and he has won 20.7 percent of his races, the fourth- highest career mark at Canterbury.
Butler was introduced to racing at age 5, when he tagged along with his dad and some friends for a day at Saratoga. Mesmerized by some of the finest horses in America -- and by the guys who rode them into the winners' circle -- he began attending regularly, hanging out near the jockeys' room to talk with the riders.
His parents insisted he finish high school before pursuing a full-time career. At 16, Butler got a summer job at the farm of prominent trainer Jack Van Berg, where he did many different tasks. "I got into it late, but I took my time and learned," Butler said. "Jack told me I was going to learn about the horse before I got on one, so I built fence and cleaned stalls and did a lot of things. Then, finally, he threw me up on a 2-year-old and said, 'Good luck, kid.'"
That horse promptly bucked him off. Butler promptly got back on, continuing his equine education with Van Berg until he rode his first race in 1992 at the age of 21. That launched a career based on the East Coast at tracks such as Monmouth Park, Suffolk Downs and Philadelphia Park.
In 2002, Butler discovered the only love that could surpass racing. While he was riding in Kentucky, the wife of a fellow jockey set him up on a blind date with LeAnn Rhone, and they have been inseparable ever since.
They were married in 2005, creating a partnership that extends to Bernell Rhone's stable. Butler rides regularly for Rhone on a circuit that includes Canterbury in the summer, Remington Park in Oklahoma in the fall and Tampa Bay Downs in the winter and spring. "It's nice to be able to talk shop away from the track," Rhone said. "And sometimes he'll ride a long shot for me when he could be on a much better horse for another trainer. That's a nice benefit to have. I'm very confident in his abilities."
The Butlers' daughters -- Kayleigh, 5, and Kendall, 17 months -- already love to ride ponies. That doesn't surprise their father, who cherishes every day of a life in racing.
"I remember going to the track and seeing the jockeys, telling my dad, 'That will be me some day,'" Butler said. "I love the competition, the sport, the thrill of it. I feel very fortunate."