Everywhere he turned in Louisville last week, trainer D. Wayne Lukas bumped into somebody wanting to give him an answer to the Question: Should he run the brilliant bay filly Serena's Song against colts in this Saturday's 121st Kentucky Derby or take the less daring course of sending her against members of her own sex in the Kentucky Oaks? The debate began every day at 4 a.m. among regulars at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop where Lukas stops on his way to Churchill Downs. Often it would continue when he was grazing a horse outside the barns on the backstretch: Fans walking along Longfield Avenue would approach the high chain-link fence and offer advice.
One afternoon, as Lukas was waiting to cross West Muhammad Ali Boulevard in downtown Louisville after giving a luncheon speech, a passing motorist bellowed, "Don't run Serena!" Lukas smiled behind his trademark dark glasses. "That's funny," he said. "I just got a long letter from a handicapper in California who told me in the strongest possible terms that I was making the mistake of a lifetime if I didn't run her in the Derby. One way or another, everybody feels strongly about it."
The racing public began taking sides on April Fools' Day, when Serena's Song toyed with seven colts while galloping to an effortless three-length victory in the 1?-mile Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park. Never mind that the Beam field was mediocre at best. Serena's Song was so dazzling that as Lukas and her owners, Robert and Beverly Lewis, stood in the winner's circle, fans encouraged them to forget the Oaks (which is run the day before the Derby) and go for the roses. Said Lukas coyly, "She would add some pizzazz to the race, wouldn't she?"
As the Derby countdown continued, the pro-Oaks crowd argued that the filly race would be easier to win and would enable Serena's Song to be fresher for other important races down the road. They pointed out that when Lukas ran the filly Althea in the 1984 Derby, she finished next to last, despite being the favorite, and raced only once more before being retired. But the pro-Derby crowd countered by talking about Winning Colors, the big roan filly who in 1988 gave Lukas his only Derby victory. Why not take a shot, they argued, in a year when all the colts had holes in their r�sum�s?
Every time Lukas sifted through his options, he ended up on the side of the Oaks, mainly because he also trains Timber Country, the long-striding colt who clinched last year's 2-year-old championship by winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. Although Timber Country failed to win his first three 1995 starts, all in California, Lukas just shrugged and said the colt didn't like the Santa Anita track. It would be different at Churchill Downs, he promised. If not, Lukas figured he had a nice backup Derby colt in Thunder Gulch, winner of the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.
The Lewises, who own a third of Timber Country, have insisted all along that the decision about Serena's Song would be left to Lukas. And why not, considering the success they've enjoyed since entrusting him in 1993 with some of the fortune they've made from beer distributorships in California? When Lukas spent $150,000 of their money to buy the daughter of Rahy at the '93 summer yearling sale at Keeneland, he told Robert Lewis, "This will be. our first stakes winner." And by last year's Breeders' Cup, Serena had won two stakes. But her finest performance came when she lost by a head to stablemate Flanders in the Juvenile Fillies.
When Flanders was retired because of injuries to her right foreleg suffered in that race, Serena's Song moved to the front of her class. She began 1995 by winning three premier filly races in California—the Santa Ynez, Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks. Then the Beam was added to her string of pearls. Was she good enough for the Derby? Lukas thought and listened. And listened and thought.
Last Friday afternoon, only eight days before the Derby, Lukas called the Lewises with his decision. After saying that he was leaning toward the Oaks, Lukas once again went through the pros and cons, then said, "You've got a dead-fit horse, so you can go either way. If you go for the Derby, you're flirting with greatness and immortality. After all, only once in their lives are horses 3-year-olds at 5:35 p.m. on the first Saturday in May." At that point the Lewises said they would like to try Serena's Song in the Derby. Lukas said he was comfortable with that because he believes her ability and tactical speed give her a good chance to join Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors as the only fillies to win the Derby.
Her rivals may be interested in knowing that Serena's Song does have a weakness. "She loves peppermints," said Lukas one morning while grazing the filly. "She'll climb over that Cyclone fence to get one. She'll follow me to Buffalo to get one."
To prove his point, Lukas reached into his pocket and pulled out a peppermint. Immediately the filly lost interest in the grass, pricked her ears and put her comely nose in Lukas's hand. It was, well, a sweet scene. But now that we know that candy is the way to her heart, only one question remains: How does she feel about roses?