Against the odds

Trainer Lukas believes at 71, he has time to win again

May 19, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

A 20-1 shot? Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was offended when his speedy Preakness entry, Flying First Class, was assigned those odds - the race's second worst - by Pimlico Race Course oddsmaker Frank Carulli on the morning line earlier this week.

"You watch: We'll go off at 12-1 or even 10-1," said Lukas, who has recorded five wins and six other in-the-money finishes as a Preakness competitor since 1980. "Baltimore won't let us go off at 20-1. Not here. We've had too much luck here."

It's called success, not luck, and Lukas, 71, has every right to crow. He has more Preakness wins than any other modern-era trainer, and he would establish a record for overall wins in the Triple Crown series if he captures one more Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont. He is tied with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who won 13 of the 3-year-old classics.

Now that Lukas has "just" 42 horses in his barn as opposed to the almost 160 he trained at his peak in the late 1980s, he is finding those wins harder to come by; his last Preakness victory was in 1999.

But as the legendary pitchman he surely is, he makes it seem inevitable that he will pass Fitzsimmons.

"I don't want to be phased out just yet," Lukas said. "I think I'm going to win some more of these. My health is good. My energy is really good. I'll be 72 this summer and I don't have any problem getting up at 3:30 [in the morning] yet. I'd like to win a couple more, and as young as I am, I don't see why I can't."

Flying First Class needs to run the race of his life for it to happen today. An all-out sprinter, the colt has won two of five career starts, and he finished acres behind Curlin, another Preakness entry, in a pair of Derby prep races in Arkansas. But he raised his game considerably with a front-running victory in the Derby Trial three weeks ago.

"Physically, I know I've got it right; mentally, I've still got to get him over a few hurdles," Lukas said of the colt.

When reporters noted that Flying First Class and Derby runner-up Hard Spun probably would provide the early pace today, Lukas held up a hand.

"No horse is faster than mine. Not even close. I haven't had a horse this fast," he said. "If I let him go, he's gone."

Lukas' chances obviously would be better if he trained Street Sense, the Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness morning-line favorite. Lukas has as much respect for this year's big horse as he does for Carl Nafzger, the veteran who trains Street Sense.

"Street Sense is the best horse here," Lukas said flatly. "He is in great hands and is very, very gifted. The thing that makes him so effective is the fact that he has extreme acceleration. He goes from cruising speed to wide-open in about two strides. If Carl can get by this [race], I think he's got a good chance [at the Triple Crown]."

Then why are the owners and trainers of eight other horses even bothering to try to beat him today?

"The only thing I can say - and I'm not taking anything away from him - is he had a great affinity for [the racing surface at] Churchill Downs," Lukas said of Street Sense. "It remains to be seen whether he has the same affinity for Pimlico. If he does and gets the same trip, he's going to beat us."

But if Street Sense doesn't have that affinity for Pimlico, or if something strange happens, as it often does, Lukas knows all about upsets. He won the 1988 Kentucky Derby with a filly, Winning Colors, and the 1999 Derby with a 31-1 shot, Charismatic. He won the 2000 Belmont with Commendable, an 18-1 shot who had lost six straight races.

"I've made a living running where I don't belong. That's nothing new for me," Lukas said.

He ruled the sport for two decades with the backing of deep-pocketed owners such as Eugene Klein, W.T. Young and Robert Lewis, but they've all died and Lukas has had to regroup. He hasn't had an entry in three of the past four Kentucky Derbys, and he sat out the 2006 Preakness, which makes his return this year that much sweeter.

"It's a chance to get back into the main arena," he said. "This is where our clientele wants to be."

Of course, it isn't good enough just to run in the classics when you're D. Wayne Lukas - you need to win. But Lukas will never stop believing that every race has his name on it, including today's.

"I'm just cocky enough that I don't care what the [other] guys are doing," he said. "I'm going to get this horse ready. I think I know what it takes to win."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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