Lukas wins, and he wins his own way

The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - D. Wayne Lukas's strength is in numbers. He is the Henry Ford of horsemen, running his stable like an assembly line, mass-producing thoroughbreds and accumulating trophies.

One question: What's wrong with that?

America's most prolific trainer won his sixth straight Triple Crown race Saturday when Grindstone nudged Cavonnier by a nostril in the 122nd Kentucky Derby. Because Lukas saddled five entries in the 19-horse field, his success was not widely popular within the equine establishment.

Not the old way

The old money regards Lukas' volume business as mildly vulgar, and resents both his showy style and his continuing success. They view him much as the Cambridge dons did sprinter Harold Abrahams in the film, "Chariots Of Fire." He's a little too professional for their patrician tastes.

"I think with Lukas the style does overtake the substance, and that bothers me," Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock said in Saturday's Louisville Courier-Journal. "I think that's all the man cares about - what's best for him - and I think he's handled his horses that way at times. It's not what's best for this horse, it's what's best for Wayne Lukas."

If Lukas pushes his horses harder than other trainers - an allegation that has shadowed him since Union City broke down in the 1993 Preakness - he has also shoved his sport into the 20th century. He has recognized America's racing classics as a crapshoot, and cultivated depth to improve his odds.

"Shooting buckshot," sneers rival trainer Sonny Hine.

Maybe so, but who else can equal his aim?

Lukas' six straight Triple Crown triumphs is unprecedented. For that matter, so was five. He has won with favorites, with longshots, and by recognizing the capricious nature of 3-year-old colts. A year ago, Lukas came to Churchill Downs convinced Timber Country was the cream of his Derby crop. He won instead with Thunder Gulch.

Sometimes it pays to have a Plan B. Saturday, Lukas also came prepared with Plans C, D and E. Prince of Thieves, his second-best finisher, ran third. Editor's Note finished sixth, Victory Speech was 10th, and Honour and Glory, which led the first ó-mile of the 1ì-mile race, faded to 18th.

"I've vacillated all week as to which was the best horse," Lukas said, "and I'm still probably confused. But he (Grindstone) was the best tonight.

"The thing about it was we felt there was a great variety of styles in our particular horses and we were not going to compromise any of their God-given talents . . . We put four of the greatest riders who have ever sat on a horse and a good young rider up and I told them, 'Look, we hired you because you are the best in the world at what you do. Just lay it out there and play the cards as they come.' "

Because of the size of its field and the unfamiliarity of its distance, the Derby defies more specific strategy. Trainer Ben Jones won six Derbies between 1938 and 1952, and started only 11 horses altogether, but the race is not normally a high-percentage proposition. No favorite has won the Derby since 1979. Lukas has won three of them now, but has had to start 31 horses to do it.

Special dedication

Some of racing's more traditional types - Seth Hancock is one - take the position that they respect the Derby too much to enter undeserving horses. They would rather be seen as dilettantes than as driven. It is their choice. It is their loss.

It takes a special talent to juggle five sets of reins. Also an unusual amount of dedication.

"He's the most focused guy I've ever seen," Grindstone's owner, William T. Young said. "He has no diversions at all. He's there seven days a week."

What D. Wayne Lukas has accomplished in racing, he has earned. Those who would denigrate his efforts are invited to match them.

"I don't want to stand here and defend myself," Lukas said Saturday. "What critics? Let's see their credentials."

Published May 5, 1996.