20-year run over, Lukas' outlook still rosy

Kentucky Derby

May 01, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

D. WAYNE LUKAS answered the phone in his barn during morning training hours at Churchill Downs yesterday. The caller wanted to discuss a subject Lukas surely wanted to avoid -- the fact that Lukas, racing's top trainer, doesn't have a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 1980.

"You know what?" Lukas said. "I'm kind of enjoying the peace and quiet."

He was kidding, of course; he'd gladly take on the ritual onslaught of media demands in exchange for a Derby contender, especially with rival Bob Baffert training the favorite, Point Given. But the fact that Lukas is joking instead of snarling tells you all you need to know: He is fine with the Derby shutout, which some in the racing world are toasting as an overdue humbling.

"I wish I were in, but I just don't have it," he said.

He couldn't accept it four years ago, when he threw in an overmatched colt named Deeds Not Words at the last minute and was severely criticized for pushing a horse just to steal a sliver of the Derby limelight. The streak should have ended that year -- Deeds Not Words ran 13th -- but Lukas bristled at the suggestion that, like an infant, he couldn't stand the lack of attention.

Four years later, no problem.

"Sooner or later, it was bound to happen," Lukas said about sitting out the Derby. "I got realistic about it throughout the spring [prep race] season [as his contenders dropped one by one]. It's not like I woke up today and said, `Holy cow, we're not in it.' "

Why is he more accepting now? It's hard to know for sure, but at this point, with his Derby record, Lukas certainly doesn't need to feel defensive about any failings. He has won four Derbys, more than any other trainer except the legendary Ben Jones. He is one of only six trainers to win the race in consecutive years and one of only three to win with a filly. His run of 20 consecutive years with a Derby horse is a record, as is his career total of 38 starters.

Amazing numbers, all.

"Someone did an analysis of our record, the Blood-horse [magazine] or someone, and it was better than I thought," he said, unable to avoid lapsing into sarcasm at least briefly. "We've won four times in 20 years, finished third six or seven times. That was better than I thought."

Don't misunderstand: He is extremely disappointed about failing to develop a Derby horse, and he is the first to admit that it is, indeed, a failure, given the advantage he starts with as the trainer for a handful of high-rolling owners who fill his barn with well-bred contenders. Twenty-one Lukas-trained horses were nominated for the Triple Crown series this year, and one-third of those were purchased for at least $375,000 as yearlings.

"With the emphasis I put on it and our [owners] put on it, we should be there," he says.

His best bet this year was Gold Trader, a talented, regally bred colt that suffered a leg fracture in the San Felipe Stakes and had to be euthanized. Then Scorpion ran poorly in the Santa Anita Derby and later developed a quarter crack (similar to a split fingernail) in a hoof. Lukas' last hope, Turnberry Isle, ran poorly in the Lexington Stakes in late April.

"Gold Trader was the one that was going to carry our colors -- we thought he was going to be really good," Lukas said. "And Scorpion was making a big move on Point Given [in the Santa Anita] before he popped that quarter crack. We had the same [high] quality horses that we always have, but it just didn't work out."

It's amazing such luck didn't end his streak before now, even with his built-in advantages. The odds of any trainer getting a horse to the Derby in any year are relatively long. Less than half of the roughly 50,000 thoroughbreds foaled every year ever win a race. Just a few of those winners have the ability to run in top company; approximately 1 percent of the original crop is nominated to the Triple Crown. And those few with ability are prone to injury, as are all thoroughbreds.

"It's so hard to come up with a Derby horse," Baffert told the Associated Press recently. "The [20-year] streak shows the caliber of horses [Lukas] has had."

Lukas will still have a rooting interest when the starting gate opens Saturday at Churchill Downs -- two of his former assistants, Dallas Stewart and Todd Pletcher, will start a combined three horses. And it wouldn't be a shock if Lukas still makes noise before the end of the Triple Crown series; he said he "would be kind of surprised" if he ran in the Preakness, which he has won five times, but he is pointing a promising colt named Buckle Down Ben for the Belmont.

"And we love our 2-year-olds," he said. "We're going to be fine, more than fine."

As if that were ever in doubt.

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