Harsh whip stings Lukas' integrity

JOHN EISENBERG

June 05, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

With foal crops, track attendance, betting handles and TV ratings down, the last thing racing needs is a brouhaha about the depressing death of a horse. But D. Wayne Lukas' handling of Union City has stirred a fierce debate.

It is an inevitable debate, given Lukas' training tactics. And it is a decidedly unfair debate.

Lukas was massacred in the racing press after Union City broke down in the Preakness and became the first Triple Crown fatality in 34 years. The criticism was that Lukas had all but engineered the colt's death by running it when he wasn't sure it was sound.

When the subject was raised after the race, the normally affable Lukas cursed reporters. The questions had hit a sore spot: Lukas has a reputation for pushing some horses to their limits and beyond.

It is true there are examples. Many top horsemen can tell stories about tiring or backsliding Lukas horses that Lukas ran for at least a race or two, hoping to squeeze more out of his time and money. Tank's Prospect and Winning Colors come to mind.

But Lukas isn't doing it to be mean: He is the master of winning races he has no business winning, with horses that appeared to be coming down from their peaks. That's his rebuttal, and it's a beauty.

In any case, it sounds like an evil practice in the context of Union City's death, but it's not. For every Union City that dies, there are hundreds of horses in similar circumstances that run, finish and sometimes win.

If every horse that wasn't training perfectly couldn't run, there wouldn't be racing. It is rare that a horse leaves the starting gate without a reason for the trainer to be concerned, and the vast majority of those -- 99.999 percent -- don't break down. They're not in danger.

Still, it made for an easy conclusion after Union City broke down. Lukas is aggressive, and his horse stopped in the Derby (finishing 15th), didn't work before the Preakness and broke down. He pushed the horse, right? It's an obvious progression, right?

Wrong. It was obvious only afterward, in the clear vision of hindsight. Lukas got ripped after the fact, which isn't fair at all.

What brought Union City down was random bad luck, not insidious training.

In the first place, there was no reason to suspect the colt's legs. A vet proclaimed them perfect after watching a jog just hours before the Preakness.

As well, the colt had previously shown an ability to come back strong from poor performances. Two of his prior 10 races were busts like his Derby, and in both cases he ran second in his next race two weeks later. It was logical for Lukas to expect that pattern to reoccur.

It did raise eyebrows when Lukas, clearly puzzled, elected not to give the horse a speed workout before the race. Union City just galloped daily except for one morning when he didn't even leave the barn. Unusual? Certainly. But grounds for accusing Lukas of putting an injured horse in harm's way? Certainly not.

Consider that Risen Star, the 1988 Preakness winner, also didn't have a speed workout before the race; trainer Louie Roussel just had the horse gallop every day. And Casual Lies, last year's third-place finisher, also didn't work before the race. It happens.

The basic truth is that trainers constantly operate in gray areas, with horses suffering from vague, unidentifiable ailments and problems. It is a job built on guesswork, not black-and-white science. Anyone second-guessing a training regimen is inferring that he knows more about the horse than the trainer. He doesn't.

Last week Union City's owner, W. T. Young, released a statement admitting it was his decision to go to the Preakness. Ric Waldman, the syndicate manager at Young's Overbrook Farm, reconfirmed to The Sun that it was "totally, unilaterally [Young's] decision to run the horse."

It is true Lukas was desperate to win; he hasn't won a Grade I stake in 19 months, and his stable is in financial trouble. And the man loves the Triple Crown attention, which he uses to sell himself to new owners.

But the Preakness field included a horse that had undergone throat surgery after the Derby, a horse that had just arrived after a 22-hour van ride from Florida and several horses that were overmatched. Their trainers were more guilty than Lukas of endangering their horses.

There is a big difference between trying to win with a horse not training perfectly, and a horse the trainer suspects might break down. To accuse Lukas of the latter is attacking his integrity, a serious charge indeed. But there's no evidence against him. No facts. A judge would throw the case out of court in 10 minutes.

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