Saturday, May 3, 1997
Not Derby without Lukas

The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - The charge against D. Wayne Lukas is obsession. Horse racing's most accomplished trainer is allegedly afflicted with a virulent form of Kentucky Derby Fever.

Lukas says this is not the case, that he has been there and done that and no longer has a hankering to hear, "My Old Kentucky Home." He says he is not starting the improbable Deeds Not Words in today's feature race at Churchill Downs to gratify his own ego, but on the instructions of the horse's owners.

Probably, it is not that simple.

Deeds Not Words is not likely to win the Kentucky Derby this afternoon, but the 50-1 longshot still serves an important purpose. He stretches Lukas' streak of consecutive Derbies to 17 and preserves the possibility (however remote) that the prolific trainer can be the first to win this race three years running.

In a larger sense, the significance of Deeds Not Words is that he gives Mainstream America another reason to tune in. On the one day a year it transcends its narrow audience, racing needs to showcase its stars. D. Wayne Lukas, love him or loathe him, is the biggest guy this game has going for it. If the day ever comes when he does not have a Derby horse, someone should lend him one.

''I think we have a certain obligation to the industry to represent it and this is our main arena," Lukas said Friday morning. "This is our day. The Triple Crown is the only time we get it . . . If my name is thrown out and they say, 'What about this goofy SOB running the horse in the Derby?' so be it. Whatever it is, they're at least talking about it."

If thoroughbred racing is fighting for survival against other forms of legalized gambling, it should turn to its front-line troops. It should find a way to prolong the careers of its great champions, even at the expense of some stud fees. It should sell its top jockeys the way Nike does basketball stars. It should encourage D. Wayne Lukas to play the cowboy Captain Ahab at Churchill Downs.

Lukas is well-suited to the role by both personality and performance. He is candid, cantankerous and enormously successful. He has won seven of the last eight Triple Crown races, and provided enough sound bites to form a filibuster. There is a sizable ego in this 61-year-old man, but it has at least been earned.

''I talked to the head of the Japanese jockey club," Lukas said Friday. "And he said, 'In Japan there are three words in racing: Shoemaker, Secretariat and Lukas.' I thought that was the greatest compliment I've ever received."

Lukas is holding his press briefings here at a corporate tent instead of his backside barn.

This could only have happened because of Lukas' dominance of the Triple Crown races. To suggest the Derby has come to mean too much to him is like accusing Alexander Graham Bell of being preoccupied with the telephone. The Derby accounts for Lukas' fame, and in large measure his fortune. Without it, he's just another guy with mud on his boots.

''We go after this thing with a vengeance," Lukas said. "I've found out in 16 years that I can make a lot of mistakes. But if you're good here or in the Breeders' Cup, they (horse owners) will keep coming back. It's kind of like USC can lose a lot of games, but if they beat Notre Dame, the season's OK."

Some trainers regard the Derby with such reverence that they only enter it when convinced they have horse enough to win. Lukas is more volume-oriented. Last year, he trained five of the horses in a field of 19. Deeds Not Words will be his 32nd Derby starter, a record.

''Of those, 17 or 18 of those over the years I had no intention of running," Lukas said. "I even lobbied not to run. But you get people like Gene Klein. He had On The Line, won the Derby trial, and he said 'we're going.' You work for these people. I stand in front of you guys out here and say all the right things. I don't say, 'Geez, Gene, I think you're nuts.' "

On The Line finished 10th in 1987, but Klein's Winning Colors gave Lukas his first Derby winner the following year. He would later win the race with Thunder Gulch (1995) and Grindstone (1996).

D. Wayne Lukas is not likely to win again with Deeds Not Words, but it is well worth his effort. This is the only Kentucky Derby they're having this year.