Redemption is sweet for embattled Lukas 119TH PREAKNESS

May 22, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

How sweet can sweet be? That is the appropriate question to ask in the wake of Tabasco Cat's victory in the Preakness yesterday, a victory that brought redemption to trainer D. Wayne Lukas in so many forms that one almost needs two hands to count.

"They're all sweet," Lukas said of the many big races he has won, "but this one is maybe a little bit sweeter. For a few reasons."

He had not won a Grade I race in 31 months, giving rise to industry whispers that, at 58, he had lost the touch that made him the most successful trainer of his generation. His savings account had suffered mightily in the wake of the death and bankruptcy of two of his biggest clients. His reputation had suffered, fairly or not, with the breakdown of Union City in last year's Preakness.

To break his 31-month shutout with a win in the Preakness, of all races, and to do it with a horse that had almost killed his son and assistant trainer, Jeff, five months earlier in a training accident . . .

Truly, how sweet can sweet be?

"I'm just glad we won," Lukas said after Tabasco Cat ran down Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin in the stretch to win pulling away, by three-quarters of a length.

Two weeks earlier, before the Kentucky Derby, with Jeff finally recovering rapidly after months of intensive therapy, Lukas had managed to laugh about the irony of pinning his Derby hopes on the horse that trampled Jeff after getting loose from handlers at Santa Anita on Dec. 15. "If we win the Derby, you couldn't make up a more dramatic story," Lukas said.

There was no drama that day, it turned out. Tabasco Cat was one of the many horses that had a chance to make a run at Go For Gin in the mud, but didn't, finishing a well-beaten sixth.

That the Hollywood ending came on the third Saturday in May, instead of the first, was the only point on which Lukas was cheated on sweetness yesterday. "We just have to stop using the Derby as a prep race for the Preakness," he said after his third Preakness win.

Lukas said he had spoken to Jeff twice before the race yesterday, once in the morning and once shortly before post time. They talk three or four times a day, Lukas said. He tried to reach Jeff from a phone in the press box publicity office shortly after the race, but failed.

"I got the maid," he said. "She said Jeff and the [two] kids had gone to a carnival."

He smiled. Jeff obviously was doing well.

Lukas had shown during the week that he still was bitter about the media fingers pointed at him after Union City's breakdown, but yesterday he neither gloated nor displayed even an ounce of sentimentality when discussing Jeff. His emotions, clearly, are worn out.

Yet, inevitably, and with customary fire, he used the victory as a ++ platform to dispute the notion that he was losing his touch, even though his last Grade I victory before yesterday was on Oct. 18, 1991.

"I don't think we have to apologize for our record in any way, shape or form," he said. "Ten years [1981-91, when he dominated the national standings] is a pretty good run. There are a lot of ups and downs in this game. I always tell Jeff that you can't measure yourself week to week, month to month or even year to year. You should look at it in 10-year increments. If you do it any sooner, you'll drive yourself nuts. The thing to do is just keep an even keel and keep getting up in the morning."

But it had to have become harder for him to get up in the morning after the death of mega-owner Gene Klein and the collapse of Calumet Farm, two of his primary sources of top horses. It certainly didn't help that Calumet had gone bankrupt reportedly owing him millions.

"Maybe we got away from some things we were doing, started using more homebreds than sale horses," Lukas said. "But things are coming together again. We've got a good client base going again, and we're back to [buying expensive sale horses]. All I can say is, 2-year-old racing is fixing to get hot because we've got some super 2-year-olds coming up. With that and getting Jeff back [working] real soon, there are lots of good things happening."

The irony is no less than remarkable. Thanks to a win by a horse that sank him to his lowest low last December, he found himself getting charged up again thinking about repeating his highest highs.

"We always told ourselves that we weren't going to hang a yoke around this horse's neck for being the horse that hurt Jeff," Lukas said. "It wouldn't be fair to penalize him. But I will say, I did really want this horse to be something special."

And so, on a clear-blue afternoon at Pimlico, the horse fulfilled his trainer's wish. About 10 of them, actually. Sweet just doesn't get any sweeter.

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