This time, Lukas not to blame

June 09, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Accusing fingers are going to get pointed when a horse breaks down at the end of his fifth race in 64 days, as Charismatic did Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

That's especially true when the horse's trainer is D. Wayne Lukas, who is renowned for having 3-year-old stars who quickly fade away, due either to injury or burnout.

But in this case, a rush to judge Lukas is unfair.

Yes, five races in 64 days is a lot -- more than any of the other 11 horses who ran in the Belmont, and, yes, probably too many for a 3-year-old.

By comparison, Silver Charm and Real Quiet each were racing for the fifth time in 84 days when their Triple Crown bids failed in the Belmont in 1997 and 1998.

Menifee and Silverbulletday, the second and third betting choices behind Charismatic Saturday, were racing for the fifth time in 76 and 84 days, respectively.

But Charismatic was a colt who thrived on work, always asking for more and always benefiting. He was a vision of robust fitness before the Belmont, and the surgeon who repaired his fractured ankle said there was no pre-existing condition.

"He has the [ankle] joint of a yearling," Dr. Stephen J. Selway said. "This joint is pristine. Charismatic was not a sore horse going in."

You can blame a trainer for a breakdown if the horse was sore or unsound going into the race, as some suggested Lukas' Union City was before breaking down in the 1991 Preakness. You also can blame the trainer if the horse was woefully overmatched, as Lukas' Deeds Not Words was in the 1997 Kentucky Derby. Fortunately, that colt wasn't injured.

If you want to blame Lukas this time, blame him for his lack of compassion. He was so devastated years ago by the death of a star filly that he vowed never to get so attached to his horses again. That he's upheld that vow was evident Saturday. The jockey was crying. The owners were crying. Not Lukas.

"Someone has to be the one to say, `OK, let's keep going,' " he said Sunday morning.

He's also obviously willing to ruin a young horse for the sake of winning his precious Triple Crown races; of the nine that have won the Derby, Preakness or Belmont for him, only four ever raced again after the Triple Crown, and only two raced as 4-year-olds.

That's devastating stuff. Lukas, 63, chalks it up to bad luck and happenstance. You can believe that if you want. He knows what happens when young horses are pushed.

But none of that means he's responsible for what happened to Charismatic. Sorry, you just can't say that.

No one suggested Prairie Bayou's trainer, Tom Bohannon, was responsible when the 1993 Preakness winner, making his fifth start in 71 days, broke down in the Belmont and had to be euthanized.

As in Charismatic's case, it's possible the heavy workload contributed, but it's also possible the horse just took a bad step. No one knows. No one will ever know.

Breakdowns are racing's great and unfortunate mystery, occurring in young, fresh horses as often as in old, exhausted ones, seldom for reasons that are apparent. A glistening, undefeated 2-year-old named Premier Property broke down in the Hollywood Futurity last December. Who knows why?

If you really want to assign blame for what happened to Charismatic, blame the sport itself, which sets lucrative, man-made goals such as a Triple Crown and asks young, developing horses to realize them while training and racing to a breaking point.

Charismatic raced 17 times in his career -- too often -- because he was purchased for $200,000 and didn't live up to those expectations for months, and his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, kept trying to earn their money back. That's the way racing works, in Lukas' barn and all others. But is it fair to the horse? Hardly.

Let's face it, the Triple Crown season almost surely is too demanding for such equine youngsters, especially since the breeding boom of the 1980s diluted the breed's genetic composition. Three races in five weeks was no big deal years ago, when horses raced 15 times a year, but it's taxing now.

Lukas himself said several years ago that racing probably should consider altering the Crown's structure, shortening the races and lengthening the time between them.

On the other hand, thoroughbreds are bred to run, as evidenced by their powerful bodies perched on matchstick legs. The whole point of the animal is to produce speed, as opposed to the other, thicker-legged variations of the breed.

"Charismatic loved what he was doing out there," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, a veterinarian who worked on the colt after the breakdown Saturday.

He'll never do it again, which is a shame. And you can fault Lukas for turning the page with a startling lack of compassion. Next candidate, please.

But you can't blame him for what happened on the track. Blame racing, blame fate, blame whatever, but don't blame Lukas, not solely at least. You just can't do that this time.

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