Day after Belmont, heads still shake

Even trainer Lukas avoids I-told-you-so in wake of Commendable's victory

Horse Racing

June 12, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - Three Hall of Fame trainers stood on the apron yesterday at Belmont Park.

It was not yet 7 a.m., and the illustrious trio - Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel and D. Wayne Lukas - were supposed to be watching their horses work out on this steamy Long Island morning. But the talk kept returning to the Belmont Stakes, won the day before by the Lukas long shot, Commendable.

"I was handicapping the race," Mott said, "and I thought, `They can't drag that horse a mile and a half.' "

Lukas laughed. He understood. He hadn't given Commendable much of a chance himself. But he knew the horse was training well, and Lukas knows as well as anyone - probably better - that if you're not in, you can't win.

Frankel, trainer of runner-up and beaten favorite Aptitude, said he hadn't given Commendable a shot, either.

"He hadn't done anything in his previous races," Frankel said.

Lukas understood that, too. After winning his first race last August, Commendable lost six straight, never finishing better than fourth. In the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago, he struggled home 17th, 26 lengths behind the winner.

But Lukas had watched Commendable train brilliantly in the morning, and he knew that if the chestnut son of Gone West ever flashed that speed in the afternoon, he'd have a strong chance against even the best colts.

Commendable flashed that speed Saturday afternoon, winning the 1 1/2 -mile race by 1 1/2 lengths. He paid $39.60 to win. And that was not nearly as much as many observers thought he should have paid.

Even Lukas's wife, Laura, wondered whether Commendable was in over his head. Before the race, she asked her husband: "You sure are optimistic. You sure you know what you're doing?"

Replied Lukas: "We've made a living entering horses where we don't belong."

Commendable gave Lukas his 13th victory in Triple Crown races, tying legendary "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons for most wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

For the first time in 30 years, the Belmont did not include the Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, or the Preakness winner, Red Bullet. Fusaichi Pegasus missed the race with a minor hoof injury, and Red Bullet's owner and trainer decided to rest him rather than run.

Asked whether the winners of the three Triple Crown races this year would ever run in the same race, Lukas said: "I think it will be very difficult to get all three on the track at the same time, given the connections."

The "connections" of Fusaichi Pegasus and Red Bullet are cautious and conservative - and selective about where they run their horses. If the three were to run against one another, it would likely be in the Travers on Aug. 26 at Saratoga or the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Lukas was asked whether he thought the Triple Crown series should be revamped or enriched to ensure that the best 3-year-olds compete.

Lukas said he believes the series should remain as is - the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness two weeks later, the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont three weeks after that - simply out of respect for tradition.

But if you were to set up the series logically, he said, it would be the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/8 miles, followed in three weeks by the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles, followed in three weeks by the Belmont at 1 1/4 miles.

That way, he said, you'd get more horses because of the preferred three weeks between races. And you'd get more fillies, because their connections would be more likely to attempt a Derby of 1 1/8 miles as opposed to one of 1 1/4 miles.

"But you'll never see that happen," Lukas said.

Should the purses of the three races, currently $1 million apiece, be increased?

"I think the Kentucky Derby should be the richest race in the world, period," Lukas said.

The richest race now is the Dubai World Cup. Its purse is $6 million.

Todd Pletcher, a former assistant to Lukas, approached the group on the apron. Pletcher's Impeachment finished fifth in the Belmont after finishing third in the Derby and Preakness.

"You holding court today, boss?" Pletcher asked.

In addition to Frankel and Mott, three reporters surrounded Lukas.

"I've only got three here," Lukas said. "That's three more than I had yesterday."

Lukas hadn't attracted the usual throngs because Commendable was such an unlikely contender. He became more popular after the race.

After returning to his barn, he said, somewhere around 7 p.m., he received a telephone call from a man from Baltimore who had somehow tracked down his number. Lukas had no idea who the caller was.

He said the man was beside himself because he had bet on Commendable. According to Lukas, the man screamed into the phone: "Our daughter's going from public school to private school. We're trading our cars in tomorrow."

Lukas said: "You must have bet a bundle."

The man replied: "I bet everything I had."

Lukas laughed. The other Hall of Fame trainers laughed. They stood there silently for a minute or two, and first Frankel, and then Mott, wandered off.

Wearing a cowboy hat, white long-sleeved shirt, blue jeans and boots, Lukas stood in the simmering heat. Finally, he said: "If it's not going to get hot today, it's going to miss a heck of an opportunity."

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