Heavy D: Lukas stays
with winning program

Feb 22, 2005 3:45 AM

If D. Wayne Lukas listened to his critics, his show would have closed on opening night.

His resume reads like an almanac of rave reviews: more than 4,200 career wins, $235 million in purse earnings, 13 Triple Crown victories, a record 17 Breeders’ Cup triumphs and 29 victories in $1 million races. He won a record six consecutive Triple Crown races and trained 23 champions, the latest of which is Azeri, top older dirt female of 2004, who was all but written off when owner Michael Paulson ended her brief "retirement" and gave her to Lukas after she had earned Horse of the Year honors in 2002 under Laura de Seroux.

Lukas has 22 training titles, four Eclipse Awards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. He is the prototypical horse trainer.

But like all men of success, Darrell Wayne Lukas has his cynics. Call it human nature. As Cole Porter wrote, "They all laughed when Edison invented sound."

Throughout a career that has been marked by both great achievement and personal tragedy, Lukas has soldiered on, fending off fate that might have felled a lesser man and disregarding a myriad of mockers. His son, Jeff, nearly died after suffering multiple skull fractures when he was run over by Tabasco Cat in Santa Anita’s stable area on Dec. 15, 1993.

Lukas continues to do what he has always done: win races of national significance. His pertinacity serves him well.

At Santa Anita this meet, Lukas again is gearing up for a run at the Triple Crown, which starts with the 131st Kentucky Derby on May 7. He has a handful of 3-year-old hopefuls, among them Consolidator, a $1.25 million son of Storm Cat who was fourth and last as the even-money favorite in the San Vicente Stakes, and Going Wild, a $600,000 son of Golden Missile who already has won three races at the meet, including the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes and the mile-and-an-eighth Sham Stakes. Both colts are owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, whose dedication and passion for the game are exceeded only by their deep pockets.

After a stakes horse loses, fingers of blame invariably are pointed to the jockey, the track condition or the post position. Lukas took a rare stance after Consolidator’s loss in the San Vicente. He blamed himself, saying he didn’t think he had the horse tight enough. In layman’s terms, Lukas meant the horse wasn’t trained to his peak for the race, and it was his responsibility to do that.

Short of Dr. Fager, it is uncommon indeed that a horse wins a race at nine furlongs immediately after winning at six, but Lukas pulled it off with Going Wild. It’s not his first performance of prestidigitation. Still impeccable in regimen and appearance at 69, Lukas has worked his magic with victories that rocked the racing world, from the likes of Cat Thief, Charismatic, Commendable, Editor’s Note, Grindstone, Thunder Gulch and Spain, to name but a few. His detractors are mainly silent these days, but Lukas pays them little or no heed anyway. He is acutely focused on his horses. But he admits he is no miracle worker.

"The first thing is you’ve got to have something to work with," Lukas said. "You’ve got to have a good horse. Going Wild has 1:08 and change speed but his pedigree indicated he would be a two-turn horse. But I didn’t go into two-turn races, because we like to train our horses to get into the race. Most of our distance horses, even our Derby horses, lay up fairly close. So we let him sprint a couple of times but his real forte should be stretching out.

"Obviously, it was a big jump from winning a six-furlong stake to a mile and an eighth. A race at a mile or a mile and a sixteenth might have been the logical step, but the mile and an eighth worked out for us and now we’re going to shorten him up to a mile and a sixteenth (on March 5 in the Santa Catalina Stakes and a meeting with champion Declan’s Moon) because that happens to be next on his schedule."

As noted, Going Wild is not the only Lukas horse his doubters have dismissed, merely the latest.

"We have a lot of them," Lukas said. "Grindstone (1996 Kentucky Derby winner), nobody thought anything of him. Even Thunder Gulch (1995 Derby winner) wasn’t highly thought of around this time of the year. He came on late. It’s just a matter of putting the emphasis where it belongs, working with the horse and not giving up on it. We’ve been known to stay with a horse. Commendable comes to mind. Editor’s Note ran dull the first couple (sixth in the Derby and third in the Preakness), then won the Belmont. Nobody thought he belonged in any of the Triple Crown races. It’s just a matter of staying with what you know works, working with the horse, trying to manipulate him into your program and get him to run."

Lukas rarely deviates from that agendum. His horses are on the track before the sun is up. And don’t expect any chit chat over coffee from Lukas at Clockers’ Corner, Santa Anita’s morning schmoozing place. He turns a blind eye to his naysayers.

"Oh, hell, you have to block them out," he said. "I never read the Racing Form or any racing publications during the Triple Crown run because it’s mostly negative and (the media) trying to manage your horse. I stay away from that and just do what I think is right. It’s worked for me."

Has it ever.

The homestretch

After the talented maiden Canteen was beaten a whisker at 2-5 at Santa Anita, his rider, Edgar Prado said he would like to stay with the son of Fusaichi Pegasus to the Kentucky Derby, if he makes it.

"He’s green but he’s got a lot of talent," Prado said. "He did everything so easy the first part of the race, but when he found himself in front he was goofing around. I didn’t want to beat him up to get there. I would love him as my Derby horse. He has all the talent in the world." Don’t be surprised to see Canteen in blinkers next out.