D. Wayne Lukas has trained the winner of the Kentucky Derby three of the past five years. He has won four Derbys in all, tying him for second on the roster of winning trainers of America's greatest race.
But never has Lukas experienced so much success so early along the Derby trail. Last weekend his young horses swept the four stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park in South Florida and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
"I don't think we've ever come out swinging this strongly in February," Lukas said from his barn at Santa Anita Park in Southern California. "We've had a solid February, and I think we'll roll into March even better."
Lukas' High Yield captured the Fountain of Youth Stakes last Saturday at Gulfstream, and his Exchange Rate registered a hard-fought victory in the Risen Star Stakes the next day at the Fair Grounds. His fillies, Shawnee Country and Cash Run, also won weekend stakes, but neither is Derby-bound.
His two colts each cost more than $1 million as yearlings. Satish Sanan's Padua Stables purchased Exchange Rate, a son of Danzig, for $1.4 million, and a partnership of Beverly and Bob Lewis, Susan Magnier and Michael Tabor paid $1.05 million for High Yield, a son of Storm Cat.
Lukas said he expected High Yield to run well at Gulfstream, especially on the lightning-fast surface. But he said he believed Exchange Rate needed the Risen Star and maybe another race before performing at his best.
"I'd have been happy with third or fourth," Lukas said. "But now that he's turned the corner, we know he's got a couple of more good ones ahead of him."
The Risen Star at 1 1/16 miles was Exchange Rate's first race around two turns. He had never competed farther than 6 1/2 furlongs. The gray colt has not finished worse than second. In five races, he has won three and placed twice.
His next assignment will be the Louisiana Derby on March 12, the day after the Florida Derby. Dangling an increased purse of $750,000, the Louisiana Derby may be the season's most intriguing Kentucky Derby prep.
Bob Baffert plans to run his top two Derby hopefuls, Captain Steve and Tribunal. And Todd Pletcher says he'll start More Than Ready, who flashed brilliance last year at age 2. John Kimmel's Country Only, impressive winner of three straight including the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, and Frank Brothers' Mighty, second in the Risen Star, are also slated for the race.
Lukas' High Yield will remain at Gulfstream for the Florida Derby. His untested Commendable, a $575,000 yearling he says may turn out to be his top 3-year-old colt, will race in the 1-mile San Rafael Stakes on March 4 at Santa Anita.
Also scheduled for the San Rafael is War Chant, one of the trainer Neil Drysdale's outstanding 3-year-olds. The other, Fusaichi Pegasus, looked sensational winning an allowance race last weekend at Santa Anita. He is slated for the San Felipe Stakes on March 19.
Steve Haskin, the seasoned Triple Crown correspondent for The Blood-Horse magazine, says that Drysdale's pair "possess the look of eagles that one so rarely sees nowadays."
The 3-year-old that Lukas continues to tout as his strongest Derby contender is the filly Surfside. She remains in California preparing for the March 12 Santa Anita Oaks and then, April 8, the Santa Anita Derby for her first race against males.
Surfside has won six of eight races against fillies, including two this year, "and we know we haven't even bore down on her at all," Lukas said.
NOTES: Wayward Ways, the promising 3-year-old trained by the Maryland-based H. Graham Motion, is recovering at Motion's Gulfstream barn from surgery to repair a broken leg. The colt suffered a condylar fracture of his left foreleg during the Unbridled, an allowance race for 3-year-olds last weekend at Gulfstream.
Three screws were inserted into what is the equine equivalent of a human's shin bone. Motion said Wayward Ways is a good patient, resting quietly as a thick bandage protects the leg. He will probably not race again.
"It was a very serious break," Motion said. "It was certainly a life-threatening injury, and it still is life threatening. But knock on wood, everything seems to be going fine."
Grundlefoot, the Gary Capuano-trained colt who finished fourth in the Unbridled, may next race on March 19 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Based at Bowie, Capuano said there's no use running the colt, a closer, again at speed-favoring Gulfstream.
Menifee, who was second in last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, used the Tampa Bay Derby as a steppingstone to the spring classics.