Singled out for a breakdown, Lukas doesn't hide bitterness

May 20, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

As a circle of reporters watched shortly after dawn yesterday at Pimlico, D. Wayne Lukas went about the business of washing Tabasco Cat, his entry in tomorrow's Preakness.

"If you see anything wrong, let me know," Lukas called out to the reporters, somewhat less than earnestly.

In other words: Yes, he was still angry.

"I defy anyone on the face of the Earth to find someone who takes better care of their horses than I do," he said a few minutes later. "You won't find anyone here earlier in the day, or later, taking care of their horses."

In other words: No, he had not forgotten.

Lukas-trained Union City became the first modern-era Preakness fatality a year ago, setting off a volley of criticism in the racing press suggesting that the horse was not wholly sound, and therefore not fit to race. Lukas, the most accessible of all horsemen of the past two decades, was furious at having his ethics and horsemanship doubted.

Savvy in the ways of the media, he knew the topic would bubble to the surface yesterday, on his first day back on the Pimlico backside. For the most part, he was as amiably voluble as ever, analyzing the recent Kentucky Derby and Tabasco Cat's chances tomorrow. Certainly, he has had far more important matters on his mind, such as the health of his son, Jeff, who nearly died after being run over by Tabasco Cat after a workout in December.

Yet, clearly, the scars from the Union City incident were not fully healed. As he jumped from topic to topic yesterday -- the danger of the Triple Crown, among them -- he kept coming back to a defense of his methods, still angry that Union City's breakdown had been singled out among the hundreds suffered last year, and every year.

"No one is exempt," he said. "You think Charlie [Whittingham] has never had one? You think Nick Zito has never had one get hauled off? It happens. This is what happens when you play sports. Race cars hit the wall. Quarterbacks tear up their knees. Horses break down. No one likes it, and no one suffers more than the trainer. All we can do is do the best we can."

His best, he feels, is more than enough. "I think I could convince the animal-rights people [that racehorses are treated humanely]," he said. "Give me two weeks with them in my barn, let me show them what we do, and I think I could convince 90 percent of them. The animal-rights people don't treat their kids as well as we do our horses. If their kids get a runny nose, they wipe it and tell them to go on back outside and play. If Tabasco gets a runny nose, we're all over it."

The deaths of Union City and then Prairie Bayou in the Belmont three weeks later sparked criticism from animal-rights groups and a period of industry self-assessment, resulting in more extensive pre-race veterinary care. A team of vets is monitoring the Preakness horses all week.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Lukas said. "We need to show the public and the animal activists that we're doing all we can. But it doesn't matter how many vets we've got running around; another horse is going to break down in a Triple Crown race someday. Accidents happen. If you play the Super Bowl, someone is going to tear up a knee."

He implied that any injury occurring in a Triple Crown race could be the result of a schedule that has young, still-developing horses running three major races in 35 days.

"Anyone who spends any time around other sports understands that injuries occur when you're tired," he said. "I've been saying for a while that I think the thing [Triple Crown] needs to be changed."

His suggestions? Shorten the Kentucky Derby by an eighth of a mile, shorten the Belmont by a quarter-mile and add a week between the Derby and Preakness.

"Purists would scream about breaking the tradition going back 100 years and all that," Lukas said, "but those are the same people who said the three-point shot would ruin basketball. What do we care about what they did in 1904? The thing is, we're losing [the presence of] good horses because of the short time between races. I bet we'd have Strodes Creek and Brocco [in the Preakness] if there was another week [of rest between the Derby and the Preakness]."

As it is, Tabasco Cat is one of the three third choices on the Preakness morning line, behind favored Go For Gin and the Maryland-based second-choice entry of Concern and Looming. Tabasco Cat, Numerous and Silver Goblin are next at 6-1. Lukas, as always, is optimistic.

"Look at the Derby finishers," he said. "The winner [Go For Gin] got a perfect trip. Second place [Strodes Creek] isn't running here. Third place [Blumin Affair] got a track he liked. Fourth place [Brocco] isn't running. Fifth place [Soul of the Matter] went back to California. We were sixth. So, we're in."

The last line was a joke, of course, and he laughed. But there is a tinge of bitterness behind his smile. The kind of bitterness that even a victory tomorrow might not erase.

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