Wayne Lukas was tempted to put a bet down on his horse before the Pimlico Special yesterday, a foreshadowing if ever there was one. Lukas doesn't bet, see. When you train hundreds of winners a year, you don't need the aggravation -- or the money. He is usually oblivious to gamblers' whims and the capriciousness of the odds. But he saw such a mistake on the Special board that a wager crossed his mind.
His horse, Farma Way, was the fourth choice among the seven in the field. The Pimlico oddsmaker had put the horse at 7-2, but he dropped and dropped until leaving the starting gate yesterday at 6-1. The big money was on Unbridled and Summer Squall, the headlining 3-year-olds of a year ago. Farma Way was just an afterthought.
Lukas saw a big score in the making. A huge score. He was convinced he had the best horse. Easily. He couldn't believe the reporters had ignored him so completely all week, swarming around the favorites. His horse had won five straight races in California before a throw-out loss in the mud last month. This was one of the best horses Lukas ever trained. Yeah, that's right, one of his best ever. At 6-1.
"I said to [his son and assistant trainer] Jeff that we ought to put down the kids' scholarship money on this one," Lukas said. "I've never felt more slighted. We were totally overlooked, and we had the most versatile horse in the race. I tell you, today was one of those days I was really tempted [to bet]."
He didn't, and even if he had, he probably wouldn't have won close to the $45,000 he did when Farma Way ran away from his famous opponents to win the Special by three lengths on a warm, cloudless afternoon, guaranteeing that the horse will never again leave the gate at 6-1.
Lukas missed a chance to make his score at the betting window, but he made a bigger one on the track. Farma Way emerged as a star yesterday. His time for the 1 3/16-mile race broke the Pimlico track record and tied the American track record set 18 years ago by Riva Ridge. This horse, an utterly unspectacular 3-year-old, obviously merits a serious reckoning now.
"This is a damn good horse, an exceptional horse," Lukas said. "I've had some good horses over the years, but he's right there with them. He's just so versatile. He can lay fourth and come from behind, or he can go to the lead like he did today. I told [jockey] Gary [Stevens] before the race just to ride like you had the best horse in the race."
Unbridled certainly wasn't. Last year's Kentucky Derby winner ran a dull sixth, failing to fire in the stretch. And Summer Squall finished second, but his trip on the rail, the position from which he won the Preakness a year ago, was not nearly fast enough. Farma Way just blasted everyone.
It is the kind of story that should appeal to people who couldn't get dates in high school, but married well; people who got C's and D's in college, but wound up running companies. Late bloomers. Farma Way barely raised a blip on the screen a year ago. He raced -- he just wasn't very fast. But a year later, he outclassed Unbridled and Summer Squall yesterday.
He'd won only two of nine starts as a 3-year-old, winning his maiden and an allowance race for non-winners. The owner, George Bunn, decided to change trainers last fall, and Lukas got the call. The prior trainer, Neil Boyce, didn't find out about it until he saw a workout posted one morning. Lukas got a horse that was just beginning to develop.
"He was a picture of health. All I had to do was fine-tune the carburetor," Lukas said. "At first I thought he might just be a sprinter, but I trained him for 45 days and called Mr. Bunn and said I didn't think he had too many limitations. Then after I sent him out [to race] the first time, I just felt the sky was the limit."
The horse ran fourth in that race, but Lukas' assessment was right. A five-race winning streak ensued, all with Stevens as the jockey, all by at least 2 1/2 lengths. The streak ended on April 13 in the Oaklawn Handicap, which Festin won in an upset, but the track had been made a mess by a downpour that dropped three inches of rain in 20 minutes.
Lukas just ignored the result and readied Farma Way for the Special. He may have been the only one who understood that the horse was a big horse, but he was right. The secret is out now. The win was Farma Way's fifth in six starts this year, and had Lukas talking big, big, big.
Lukas trained Criminal Type, the Horse of the Year in 1990, but yesterday was pushing Farma Way in a comparison. He just couldn't help himself. "Criminal Type needed a target in front of him, while this horse is more versatile," Lukas said. "They're both terrific horses, but . . . "
So: Horse of the Year, again? "If the voting was right now, I don't see who else," he said, smiling the smile of a man who'd just let the rest of the world in on a secret he'd known for quite some time.