Hall calls, Lukas changes his tune

Famed trainer drops scorn as achievements finally bring election

April 28, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- These days, the throngs flock to Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. That's where Bob Baffert, seeking an unprecedented third straight Kentucky Derby victory, entertains the masses.

Over at Barn 44, the crowds have all but disappeared. That's where D. Wayne Lukas, one of the most successful trainers of all time, quietly prepares two of his 3-year-olds for Saturday's 125th Kentucky Derby.

Lukas hasn't won a Derby since 1996, which seems a lifetime in this sport, especially in light of Baffert's domination of the Triple Crown races the past two years. But yesterday, even as Baffert sent out his heavy hitters for their final Derby workouts, the day belonged to Lukas.

His election to the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was announced here at Churchill Downs. He will be inducted Aug. 9, along with jockey Russell Baze and thoroughbreds Miesque, Exceller and Gun Bow.

"I've been blessed so many times in the horse business in so many different ways," Lukas said at the announcement ceremony in the Churchill Downs press box. "I'm very happy to be here today."

His gracious remarks in public belied his venomous outbursts in the past over the Hall of Fame committee's excluding him from the annual ballot. Lukas often lashed out around the barn, saying that he couldn't care less about the Hall of Fame, and that if he ever was elected, he would boycott the induction.

His anger stemmed from a dispute over his eligibility for the honor. Hall of Fame rules require nominees to have trained thoroughbreds for at least 25 years. The hall's nomination committee determined that Lukas didn't start training them until 1974.

But Lukas, 63, contended he started training thoroughbreds in the mid-1960s while he also trained quarter horses. Racing historian Jim Bolus discovered records supporting Lukas' claim, but the Hall of Fame committee discounted them.

So this was the first year Lukas appeared on the ballot. And racing journalists and historians promptly voted him in.

"If they want to use 1974, and that makes the committee happy, and you evidently endorsed that by your votes, so be it," Lukas said.

He said he would attend the induction ceremonies.

Lukas also has clashed with journalists over their accusations that he has pushed horses too hard and occasionally run them when they were injured. But no such confrontations occurred yesterday, when even his critics seemed to marvel at his accomplishments.

Lukas has won four Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding trainer.

His horses have won 19 Eclipse Awards, more than any other trainer.

His horses have won 13 Breeders' Cup races, more than any other trainer.

He has won 518 graded stakes. Incredibly, that represents 7 percent of all graded stakes run in North America the past 20 years.

He has led all trainers in annual purse earnings for 14 of the past 17 years. In 1988, he set a one-year record of $17.8 million.

Sometime this summer, Lukas will surpass $200 million in purse earnings. Only one other trainer, the late Charlie Whittingham, has even topped $100 million.

Beginning with the 1994 Preakness, he won six consecutive Triple Crown races. He has won 10 Triple Crown races in all (three Kentucky Derbies, four Preaknesses and three Belmonts).

He will try to win his fourth Derby in three days when he saddles Cat Thief and Charismatic, two experienced colts not receiving the attention of some other contenders, but two who could win and not raise many eyebrows.

A son of Storm Cat, Cat Thief has finished in the top three in 10 of 11 races, but has won only two. He hasn't won since October, but since then has recorded close seconds or thirds in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Fountain of Youth Stakes, Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes.

"My whole program with Cat Thief was to improve him," Lukas said. "I think we could have changed a few things in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, and we'd have had a couple of wins going into this, and we'd be 4- to-1 instead of 10-to-1."

Lukas reserved his most effusive comments for Charismatic, a son of Summer Squall who has competed 14 times, more than any other potential Derby entrant. He has won three, including his last race, the Lexington Stakes on April 18 at Keeneland.

"He's just exploding," Lukas said. "That might be the best kind of horse to have in this whole scenario. Every day he's surprising me."

Lukas has started far more horses in the Derby (33) than any other trainer. His record is three wins, no seconds and four thirds. Twenty-six of his starters failed to crack the top three. He has started a horse in the Derby every year since 1981.

"I think I've done what I can with my horses," Lukas said. "I don't know if that means I'm going to run fifth or 15th or win it or what. But that's all you can ask."

Kentucky Derby

What: 125th Kentucky Derby

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

When: Saturday, post time 5: 27 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7, 4: 30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Purse: $1 million

Distance: 1 1/4 miles

Field: Full field of 20 expected

Post position draw: Today, 5 p.m., ESPN

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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