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Defying The Odds
William Nack
March 21, 1994
As trainer Jeff Lukas recovers from near-fatal injuries, the horse that trampled him, Tabasco Cat, has emerged as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby
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March 21, 1994

Defying The Odds

As trainer Jeff Lukas recovers from near-fatal injuries, the horse that trampled him, Tabasco Cat, has emerged as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby

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His right hand gripping the end of the banister to steady himself, Jeff Lukas turned slowly beneath the bright lights of the chandelier that hangs in the foyer of his Southern California home. It was early evening on March 6, and Lukas's wife, Linda, was holding an impromptu session in memory reinforcement.

"What horse is that above the fireplace?" Linda asked, pointing to a large color photograph displayed there. "Criminal Type," the 36-year-old horse trainer answered correctly, naming the 1990 Horse of the Year, whom he had helped to train with his more celebrated father, D. Wayne Lukas. "There he's turning for home in the Hollywood Gold Cup."

Now Linda touched a smaller photo off the foyer: "Remember who these three horses are?" Moving a bit stiffly, Jeff stepped forward and peered closely at the picture. Linda tapped the glass over the gray horse in the middle.

"That's Lady's Secret," said Jeff, one of America's most respected young horsemen, identifying the doughty mare whom he had campaigned to Horse of the Year in 1986. To her right stood a tall, elegant-looking bay. "That's Life's Magic," Jeff said, naming yet another champion in whose career he had played a major role. Finally, there was the coppery chestnut with the white star, standing on Lady's Secret's left. "That's Alabama Nana," said Jeff, recalling another stakes winner whom he had once escorted to the racing wars.

That Jeffrey Wayne Lukas is still alive today, that he is able to recognize with his one good eye the major totems of his past, comes as close to the realm of miracle as medical science ever gets. "Two-and-a-half months ago he was in a coma—I thought he was going to die—and now he is walking and talking," Linda says. "It's amazing. He is improving every day. He is remembering more every day. We are so lucky. He's going to get better. A hundred percent. I just know it."

Early on the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 15, outside the Lukas barn in the stable area at Santa Anita Park, a thousand-pound chestnut colt named Tabasco Cat—the fastest of the Lukas 2-year-olds and the barn's most promising 1994 Kentucky Derby prospect—broke free from his handler and began bounding riderless, like a flushed deer, between the sheds. That most dread of backstretch cries went up: "Loose horse!"

Sitting nearby on his pony, 53-year-old trainer Walter Greenman was watching the scene unfold when he saw something that he had never seen a loose horse do before. "Most horses, when you step out to stop them, will pull themselves up in front of you," says Greenman. "But when Jeff stepped out, this horse never hesitated. The horse buried his head, kind of dipped his shoulder like a fullback, and ran over him. It was as though he knew exactly what he was doing. And then the horse walked over him real fast."

The horse slammed Lukas flat on the ground, and the sound of the back of his head striking the hard dirt was like that of a baseball cracking off a bat. Trainer Mike Smith, one of Lukas's closest friends, arrived moments later and sensed instantly how grave the injury was. "His eyes were open, but his stare was blank," says Smith, "He was incoherent. He moaned and moaned." Lukas's condition deteriorated so quickly at the racetrack that paramedics decided not to move him by ambulance. Instead, he was lifted by chopper to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where he lay for days in a coma, near death, and where he slowly, ever so gradually, emerged from the deepest sleep to dimmest consciousness, his eyelids fluttering half-open on Christmas Day; and where, looking thin and pale (his weight ultimately dropped from 220 to 178), he whispered his very first word, "Linda," or Jan. 13. Ten days later he took four halting steps with a walker and began rejoining the world of his friends and family particularly that of his wife and two children, Brady, 4, and Kelly, 1.

"It was awful, like a bad dream," Linda says.

By the time William Caton, a Pasadena neurosurgeon, saw Lukas in the hospital the morning of the accident, the trainer was comatose. "His whole brain was swollen," Caton says, "primarily his frontal and temporal lobes. Fortunately, those areas he bruised have the least amount of neurological function of all the areas in the brain, but they do involve his memory, his degree of alertness and his personality. He was extremely grave." To relieve the growing intracranial pressure (ICP), Caton put him on mannitol—"to decrease the brain swelling." he says—and placed Lukas on hyperventilation, which decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood; this has the effect of reducing the blood flow to the brain, thus lowering the pressure there. The next day Caton performed a ventriculostomy, drilling a thumbnail-sized hole in the top of Lukas's skull and inserting a device deep into his brain to monitor the ICP and a tube "to drain cerebrospinal fluid when the pressure went up."

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