Wednesday, May 03, 2000

1st Saturday in May is Lukas time




columnist
        LOUISVILLE — The rap on D. Wayne Lukas is that he runs for the roses with horses better suited to pulling plows.

        He targets the Kentucky Derby with a shotgun approach — both barrels trained on the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. He has taken the delicate craft of training thoroughbreds and turned it into a high-volume business. He has become the most famous trainer in his industry by inviting criticism, risking ridicule and improving his odds.

        He is either the walking definition of Derby Fever or the shrewdest soul in the sport. Maybe both. Though no other man has saddled so many undeserving steeds on the first Saturday of May, only the late Ben Jones has won more Derbies.

        Bottom line: Isn't that a trade-off you'd have to make?

        With four Derby wins among 35 starters, Lukas has lost the race more often than any other trainer has tried it. But he was also the first trainer to surpass $200 million in purses. If he is obsessed by the Derby, he also recognizes its power as a marketing tool. Except for one scene in The Godfather, no equine event makes such a powerful impression on first-time viewers.

        “There's bigger purses,” said Todd Pletcher, a Lukas protege. “But there's no bigger event, no bigger prize.”

        Lukas has been pursuing that prize since 1981, and his landscaped barn, pre-dawn workouts and basketball analogies are as much a part of the Derby scene now as mint juleps and infield debauchery.

Prolific record on tap
        Saturday, Lukas will become the first trainer to start at least one horse in 20 straight Derbies, and the first to start multiple entries 10 times. He is setting the bar so high, Nick Zito says, that “You'd have to be Methuselah to catch him.”

        Of Lukas' three prospective starters for Saturday's race — Commendable, Exchange Rate and High Yield — only High Yield figures to be much of a factor. Commendable was fourth last time out in the Lexington Stakes. Exchange Rate ran ninth in the Wood Memorial. Yet in a crowded field with no compelling favorite, there is something to be said for strength in numbers. Thunder Gulch, Lukas' 1995 Derby winner, was long lost in the shadow of his stablemate, Timber Country. Lukas won last year's Derby with Charismatic, a colt he had entered in claiming races only a few months before.

        “If I had a 900 number and took a poll of you guys,” Lukas said Monday, “Charismatic would still by running for $62,500 (in claiming races).”

Owners flock to him
        Because Lukas must sometimes oblige owners who want a Derby horse for the social standing it provides, he often makes entries against his better judgment. Some horses wind up in the Derby because wealthy dilettantes can afford to indulge their dreams. Others appear as an expensive excuse to buy a new hat.

        “The biggest mistake you make is running horses that don't belong,” Lukas said. “And we're all guilty of that. But there's so much behind that that doesn't come out. Maybe in a book when I'm 85 ...

        “Bill Young's first Derby starter was Shy Tom. He ran well and had a nice spring, but I don't think either Bill or I believed in our hearts that Shy Tom was going to win the Derby.”

        Shy Tom finished a forlorn 10th in the 1989 Derby. Looking back, he probably had no business being there.

        The rap on D. Wayne Lukas is that he always errs on the side of excess. The genius of D. Wayne Lukas is that he makes you notice.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Locals Derby dreaming
'Derby for Dummies'
Continuing Kentucky Derby coverage from Associated Press