Where's that man Lukas? Looking for a Derby horse

His favored mount dead, trainer's best hope now hasn't won a stakes race

Horse Racing

April 06, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - We're searching for D. Wayne Lukas amid the barns and horses at Santa Anita Park.

His pony Sage is tied up outside his office in Barn 66. But his corner office, a transformed tack room paneled and bright, is empty. Lukas is nowhere in sight.

As the trainer of more Kentucky Derby horses than anybody else, Lukas keeps showing up at all these Derby preps. Yet it's almost as if he's become invisible.

He arrives in designer suits and starched shirts, saddles his horses, and then departs in anonymity. That's what happens when your horses finish fifth, 10th, 11th - or don't finish at all.

Lukas will show up again tomorrow for the Santa Anita Derby, perhaps the most significant Derby prep of all. He will saddle Scorpion, a 3-year-old son of Seattle Slew that cost $480,000 as a yearling.

Although Scorpion has started nine times and still not won a stakes race, he is one of Lukas' last hopes for this year's Kentucky Derby. The trainer has won four Derbys, has started 38 horses in the country's greatest race, and has run them in every Derby since 1981. His streak of 20 straight is in jeopardy.

Yesterday, we found Lukas down his shed row, talking on a cell phone, supervising a blacksmith, and juggling calls from jockeys' agents.

"It's a busy morning," said the 65-year-old trainer. "And it's only going to get worse. I go like this 14, 15 hours a day. It never lets up."

Lukas manages 132 horses at four tracks - Santa Anita Park, Churchill Downs, Belmont and, for the first time, Delaware Park. Last year, he welcomed into his care 45 to 50 2-year-olds. About half were males, providing Lukas the richest bounty of high-priced, royally bred Triple Crown prospects of any trainer in the country.

He nominated 21 to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. One by one they've fallen short of expectations, leaving Lukas with a pair of marginal Derby prospects - Scorpion and Turnberry Isle.

After finishing fifth as the favorite in the Gotham Stakes three weeks ago at Aqueduct, Scorpion is 30-1 in Santa Anita Derby morning line. Turnberry Isle, 10th in the Florida Derby, will race April 21 in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in one last attempt at earning a Derby berth.

"We're in a business that goes up and down," Lukas said, settling into a chair in his office. "One thing about our operation, we really don't look back and dwell on the negative. That philosophy has served us well."

Lukas has been criticized through the years for looking out more for his own interests than his horses'. He's been accused of running horses too often and in races too demanding. He's been skewered by the media for sending out sore horses that broke down, losing their lives on the track.

Yet Lukas has persevered. One of the most recognizable figures in horse racing, he is handsome, articulate, driven, and polished. He sells himself, and he sells winning. He always finds takers in the form of deep-pocket owners who want to play at the highest levels -- the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup.

Sometimes, Lukas said, his owners insist on running in races - the Kentucky Derby, for instance - despite his advice against it.

"Once they make that decision, you'd better join their camp," Lukas said. "You take a positive approach on their behalf, and for that you get barbecued. But they don't want to hear from me that their horse isn't good enough. And they damn sure don't want to read it. If they do, next week they'll have their horses out of your barn and into someone else's."

Lukas lost Gold Trader, his top 3-year-old this year, to a broken hind leg in the homestretch of the San Felipe Stakes three weeks ago here at Santa Anita. The horse was euthanized.

"He was a really special horse," Lukas said of the richly bred son of Storm Cat and Golden Attraction. "He was our best chance, without a doubt."

Lukas makes no excuses for his underachieving 3-year-olds, other than to say some have suffered the usual nicks and bruises, and some have foundered over racing surfaces they didn't like. But in the end, he said, none has earned a ticket to Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

"Scorpion is a real talented horse," Lukas said. "If I get a good, solid effort from him [tomorrow], then I get 30 days before the Derby. Given 30 days with a horse that can run, I think I'm dangerous."

Lukas pointed out that two years ago he ran a horse in the Santa Anita Derby named Charismatic. At odds of 44-1, Charismatic finished fourth. The nation yawned.

Four weeks later, Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby. Then he won the Preakness. He might have won the Belmont -if his left-front leg hadn't broken in the stretch.

Raised from obscurity by the never-say-die Lukas, Charismatic captured racing's highest honor: Horse of the Year.

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