Sunday, May 02, 1999

Lukas laughs last and best - at himself




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[tate]
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas celebrates his fourth Derby win.
(AP photo)
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        LOUISVILLE — D. Wayne Lukas laughed last. He also laughed first. He chuckled at his folly. He giggled at his fate. He resisted the urge to say, “I told you so,” because he knew he hadn't known.

        He didn't know what he had in Charismatic. Not by a long shot. Not until the chubby chestnut stormed through the shadows and down the stretch Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. Not before this refugee from a claiming race defied his dosage, his history and 31-1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby.

        “I'd be foolish to stand here and tell you I thought he was going to win this race,” Lukas said. “I probably misread this horse as bad as any I've trained. And I've trained a lot of them.”

        He was wearing a navy blue, double-breasted pinstriped suit and the look of a man who had found a winning lottery ticket stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Lukas, elected Tuesday to racing's Hall of Fame, has won four Derbies now and he has seen the Run for the Roses from several sides: overmatched and overrated, unsung and undeserving. He has run a record 35 horses in the Derby but never before has trained a horse so widely ignored and so indisputably worthy.

Almost "a goner'
        Barely 11 weeks ago, Charismatic had run second in a claiming race at Santa Anita, awarded the victory on a disqualification. Any discerning horseman in the crowd of 5,175 could have grabbed the colt that day for the paltry price of $62,500. In retrospect, this was roughly akin to offering a Monet at a flea market.

        “I thought he needed a confidence-builder,” Lukas explained. “But I was a little apprehensive. He went in the paddock and he looked great. I thought, "If there's one good horsemen here, he's a goner.' I told (owner) Bob Lewis, "If we get away with this today, we're not going to do it again.'”

        Lewis had been prepared to cut his losses, weary of paying feed bills for a flabby horse with starvation earnings, but Charismatic went unclaimed. Often, the most powerful force in our lives is inertia. Sometimes, the smartest people in racing succeed through dumb luck.

        “When I started fooling with him this spring ... every time I'd go out there with him, I'd say, "Boy this horse just seems like he's getting fat,'” Lukas said. “I was even checking my groom. I thought maybe he was slipping him grain at night. Every time I would drill on him, he seemed to get heavy. So I started experimenting a little bit.”

        Lukas started to push the horse harder and was encouraged to push harder still. He picked up the pace of his training, demanding more distance and quicker work. He raced Charismatic twice in 13 days and was astonished by the improvement. He juggled jockeys like so many tennis balls — Chris Antley was Charismatic's fifth rider in six races — searching for the right fit.

Down the homestretch
        Charismatic still looked lousy in the post parade, but he was starting to make strides toward the winner's circle. He lost the El Camino Real Stakes by a head, finished fourth behind three other Derby horses in the Santa Anita Derby, then secured a spot in the Derby by winning the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 18. Lukas declared he had never done a better job of training, or a worse job as a talent scout.

        Even as the horses were being loaded into the starting gate, Lukas thought his best shot at a fourth Derby win was with Cat Thief. He watched the race from the box of Cat Thief's owner, W.T. Young, and was still chanting that horse's name at the top of the stretch when he saw Charismatic's surge at the sixteenth pole.

        “You talk about being in a spot,” Lukas said. “I was standing with my dearest friend in the world, Bill Young, and ... at that point I didn't know if I should jump up and down, holler, throw the program or what.”

        Lukas was both embarrassed and ecstatic, the giddiest guy in a crowd of 151,051. All he could do was laugh.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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