For Lukas, cup isn't quite full

Racing: In a life devoted to horses, about the only honor to have escaped D. Wayne Lukas is a Triple Crown, which Charismatic can take care of Saturday.

June 01, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,LOUISVILLE, Ky.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Shortly after 4 in the morning, D. Wayne Lukas was back to work at Pimlico.

He had just won the Preakness the day before with Charismatic, achieving two-thirds of the Triple Crown. Yet he and his wife, Laura, a couple immersed in horses, had returned to the Pimlico stakes barn in the deep black of night.

After the Preakness, they had collapsed into their room at the Cross Keys Inn and called room service. They ordered cheeseburgers and milkshakes.

They drank no champagne. They did not celebrate with friends. By 9: 30 p.m., they were asleep.

"That's about as wild as it gets," Laura said.

For Lukas, the most accomplished thoroughbred trainer in history, horses are life. By devoting nearly every waking hour for four decades to horse racing, Lukas has won just about everything there is to win -- except the Triple Crown.

He won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes the same year (1995), but not with the same horse. If Charismatic captures the 131st Belmont on Saturday at Belmont Park, the great-grandson of Secretariat will become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Af firmed in 1978.

After the Preakness, Lukas sent the colt back to Churchill Downs. Here, in the shadow of the twin spires, he has prepared Charismatic for the pressure-packed run at history. Tomorrow, Lukas and the colt will fly to New York -- after Charismatic's final workout for the Belmont this morning.

Despite the strain of nursing a horse through three grueling races in five weeks, Lukas smiles and jokes more than he has in years. At 63, the sometimes combative, egotistical horseman seems to have mellowed.

"You have to lighten up," said his wife. "I think sometimes you've got to get your feet back on the ground. You know what I mean -- reality check."

Laura has been the one to keep Lukas' feet planted on earth. Feisty and 40, she became Lukas' fourth wife June 15 last year. They met at a horse track. Laura trains quarter horses and thoroughbreds.

They flew from California, where they live, to Las Vegas to get married -- after training horses in the morning. Laura persuaded Lukas to spend the night before flying back to work. They attended a show by a comedian.

"And Wayne fell asleep," Laura said.

Because of Laura, Lukas has returned to quarter horses, the lightning-quick breed that sprints a quarter-mile at tracks mostly in the Southwest and California. Lukas trained them for 20 years before switching full time to thoroughbreds in 1978.

Now, in the quarter-horse programs, he is listed as trainer and Laura as owner. But actually, it's just the opposite.

"We don't have any other interests except horses," Laura said. "The quarter horses, that's our vacation. That's our hobby. They're a diversion for Wayne, a relief from the big pressure of thoroughbreds."

And what greater pressure exists for a trainer than trying to win a Triple Crown, horse racing's most coveted and elusive prize?

Lukas said yesterday that he's enjoying the ride. But after one reporter's question involving his rival, trainer Bob Baffert, Lukas briefly flashed the temper that erupted in 1997 over criticism of his running the overmatched Deeds Not Words in the Kentucky Derby. Then, during a 15-minute tantrum to a New York reporter, Lukas continually referred to reporters as "cockroaches."

Yesterday, a reporter asked Lukas what the reaction would be if he, and not Baffert, tried to block a Triple Crown by sending a filly into the Belmont. Baffert has said he plans on running the filly Silverbulletday in the race. Baffert ran another filly, Excellent Meeting, in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. She finished fifth in the Derby, but gave up in the Preakness and didn't finish the race. She was not injured.

"You guys would have a field day," Lukas said. "The cockroaches would come right out of the woodwork.

"How about me running Excellent Meeting in the Preakness and having her eased? They'd have said, `Well, he couldn't stand to be out of the Preakness. And he ran the filly, and now he ruined her.' And I'd have been `the butcher.'

"I don't want to get into it, frankly. I'm trying to enjoy the spring. I don't need this aggravation at all."

Lukas said that Charismatic continues to thrive and that he is confident, although not cocky, the colt can win the Belmont. A victory would push Lukas' career earnings to more than $200 million, an astonishing feat considering that only one other trainer, the late Charlie Whittingham, has earned more than $100 million.

"That's a milestone," Lukas said of the $200 million. "That has never been done, ever, not even close. We're pretty proud of that number, because that is the bottom line. That turns the wheels."

That $200 million represents purse money to owners who then buy and breed more horses. The sales catalogs in Kentucky overflow with horses descended from stallions and broodmares who Lukas trained.

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