He cut his hand while tightening the girth on his horse Tabasco Cat, and now, as D. Wayne Lukas rode the clubhouse escalator to the reserved boxes to watch last Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore, he was trying to stanch the bleeding and keep it from staining his dark-blue suit. As he dabbed at his injured finger, the 58-year-old trainer talked about the vagaries of racing luck.
Lukas, who led the nation in purse earnings every year from 1983 through '92, had lately been mired in the worst slump of his career. He hadn't won a Grade I stakes race since October 1991. Yet here he was at Pimlico, clinging to the hope that Tabasco Cat, who had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, could somehow find a way to overcome Derby winner Go for Gin and eight other contenders in the 1[3/16]-mile Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. "It's a funny thing about these classic races," he said to a companion. "We all analyze them, but they almost never turn out the way we think they will."
Lukas had arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday, only three days before the race, without his customary swagger of years past. After all, it was a year ago that his horse Union City broke a leg during the Preakness and had to be destroyed. After that race Lukas was visibly shaken. And that was just the beginning of what Lukas will always remember as the Year from Hell.
In the wake of the Preakness some turf writers accused him of knowingly running a lame horse. His critics said he was desperate to make a big score because his business empire was collapsing. Lukas eventually admitted that he had indeed suffered financial setbacks (SI, June 7, 1993), but he went on the counterattack against those who intimated that he cared more about his finances than he did about his horses.
Lukas was just beginning to regroup when he suffered an even cruder blow. On the morning of Dec. 15, 1993, Lukas was standing outside his office at Santa Anita when he heard a lot of commotion and then a sickening thud. He dashed over to find that Tabasco Cat had gotten loose after a workout and had run over Lukas's 36-year-old son, Jeff, his chief assistant. As he bent over Jeff's crumpled body, Wayne initially thought his son was dead. "He never moved or moaned," Wayne says.
When the paramedics arrived, the first thought was to take Jeff to a nearby hospital by ambulance. But one of the paramedics insisted it would be better to call in a helicopter. "It landed right next to the barn," Wayne says. "If they'd used the ambulance, we would have lost him. As it was, we barely saved him."
With all that as preamble, it is not surprising that Wayne Lukas was subdued while he stood in his Pimlico box and watched Tabasco Cat warm up for the Preakness. More than once he remarked that he was pleased to see his normally high-strung horse acting so calm. "For him, that's good," Lukas said. "Very good." While the horses were loaded into the starting gate, the ABC cameras focused on Nick Zito, trainer of Go for Gin. Nobody paid much attention to Lukas.
When the gate sprang open and the horses came pounding down the stretch and past the grandstand for the first time, Lukas said, "I like the way he looks. He's just where he should be." Tabasco Cat was fourth, saving ground on the rail, and that's more or less where jockey Pat Day kept him on the backstretch and into the turn for home.
It was at that point that Go for Gin opened a one-length lead over Polar Expedition, with Tabasco Cat another length back. "We've got to move now because we can't let him get away from us," Lukas said.
As if connected to Lukas by mental telepathy, Day moved his colt. When the leaders swung out of the turn, Tabasco Cat was second, with dead aim on the front-running Go for Gin. "Come on, Pat," Lukas said.