Had it all worked out differently last week for D. Wayne Lukas, had his gambles failed and his faith gone unrewarded, you can bet that Lukas-bashing would have become as popular as crab-smashing in Baltimore's seafood restaurants. That's the price of being "the straw that stirs racing's drink," which is how Lukas, the sport's highest-profile trainer, was introduced at a Preakness brunch last Friday. But as dusk fell on Pimlico Race Course the next day, there was Lukas, smiling behind his trademark dark glasses as he watched Timber Country being hosed down and gussied up after a Preakness victory that brought a happy ending to a week in which the trainer "had my head on the chopping block."
As odd as that may sound, that was the situation after Lukas won the Kentucky Derby on May 6—then found he had to defend himself for hyping the wrong colt. In the Derby, Timber Country finished third behind his overlooked stablemate Thunder Gulch, who went off at 24-1. The odds were so high at least in part because Lukas kept telling anyone who would listen that Thunder Gulch was a nice colt, sure, but not in the same class as Timber Country, last year's 2-year-old champion, or even Serena's Song, the brilliant filly who is also in his stable. Even on the morning after the Derby, Lukas met the media outside his Churchill Downs barn wearing a green Timber Country baseball cap, a statement more pointed than anything he could say.
Asked about Timber Country's Derby finish, Lukas blamed jockey Pat Day's inability to extricate the colt from traffic in time to make a serious run. But Lukas refused to dump Day after the Derby, when some members of the Timber Country camp—the colt is owned by partners William T. Young, Graham Beck and Bob and Beverly Lewis—argued that his laid-back riding style didn't fit the laid-back colt's personality.
On the Monday before the Preakness, Day worked Timber Country at Churchill Downs, with strict orders from Lukas to "startle him if you can." The idea was to sharpen the colt, get him to run more aggressively—something to snap his 0-for-4 record in 1995. When the work was over, the :59[4/5] clocking for five furlongs didn't impress Lukas and Day nearly as much as the way the colt came off the track. "He went jiggedy-jog, just tugging on the bridle," Day said. "He hadn't done that all spring."
That same day, Lukas made an announcement about Serena's Song that caused almost as much of a stir in the racing world as had his decision three weeks earlier to run her against colts in the Derby: He was shipping her to Baltimore along with Timber Country and Thunder Gulch so she could run against fillies in the Black-Eyed Susan the day before the Preakness. The Lewises, who own the filly, backed the decision.
By the time the Lukas horses were checked into the Pimlico stakes barn on Wednesday afternoon, the filly was the subject of another debate, again inspired by Lukas's decision. In the Derby she was pressured into setting a suicidal pace that cost her any chance of victory. Mercifully, when it became obvious that Serena's Song was out of gas, jockey Corey Nakatani wrapped up on her even though it meant she finished 16th in the 19-horse field. So, observers wondered, didn't she need a long rest? Wasn't running her back in the Black-Eyed Susan putting her at risk of a career-ending injury?
As he waited for the Black-Eyed Susan to begin, Lukas knew the vultures were circling. "You don't think my head's on the chopping block, do you?" he said. To his relief, Serena's Song responded with a nine-length victory.
But there was still the main business of the week, the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown. After the fifth race on Saturday, Lukas visited the Pimlico jockeys' room to see Day and Gary Stevens, who had ridden Thunder Gulch to victory in the Derby. The trainer devoted most of his attention to Day, who won last year's Preakness and Belmont for him with Tabasco Cat. Lukas reminded Day to "be a pilot, not a passenger." And Day, long one of the nation's top riders, understood what was at stake. "My contract lasts only until the end of the race," he said.
Going into the Preakness, Lukas already had turned Pimlico into his personal shooting gallery, knocking off stakes wins on Thursday (Lilly Capote in the Miss Preakness), Friday (Serena's Song in the Black-Eyed Susan) and Saturday (Commanche Trail in the Maryland Budweiser Breeders' Cup). Such a run makes even the most optimistic trainers wary, and after supervising the final preparation of Thunder Gulch and Timber Country, Lukas wondered, "Do you think we have one more bullet left in the gun?"
Day, aggressive from the moment Lukas gave him a leg up, provided the answer. He tapped Timber Country with his whip in the post parade "to let him know it was time for business," the rider said, and he whacked him on the left side as soon as the starting gate opened. The result was as desired: Timber Country was never worse than sixth in the 11-horse field, had plenty of gas when Day asked him to dig in on the turn for home, and made a powerful move in the stretch to take the lead inside the 16th pole.