For D. Wayne Lukas, the search for glory at Churchill Downs continues; his sometimes star-crossed quest to fulfill his grandest dream goes on. He calls the Kentucky Derby "the gold ring" to distinguish it from all the other titles and trophies offered in the sport.
In recent years Lukas has won his share—far more than anyone else, in fact. Although he ventured into the thoroughbred world only nine years ago as an expatriate from the quarter horse business, he has overwhelmed the sport with his presence, setting records that only he now seems capable of breaking. Last year his coast-to-coast empire of horses earned a record $12,344,595. It was the fourth year in a row that he topped all money winners and the second straight year that he won the Eclipse Award as America's champion trainer.
Lukas-trained horses won 64 stakes in 1986—the most formidable of them. Lady's Secret, was voted Horse of the Year—and this season he is setting a pace that could make last year's look tepid by comparison. As of last Friday, his horses had already won 28 stakes races, twice the number they had won at the same point in 1986. "My whole stable is running straight through the bridle," says Lukas.
This Saturday he will straighten the bridles on three horses—War, Capote and On the Line—for the 113th running of the Kentucky Derby. Ah, yes, the pursuit of the elusive gold ring lures the Californian east again, as it has so many times in the past. Over the last six years, Lukas has run nine horses in the Derby, and the closest he has come to winning was in 1981, when the long shot Partez finished third. Twice his horses have gone off as the favorite—in 1983, when Marfa finished fifth (as part of a three-horse Lukas entry), and in 1984, when he actually came armed with two fillies, Life's Magic (who was eighth) and Althea (19th). Timid and orthodox Lukas is not, but his disappointments at the Derby have cut deep.
"If you're going to coach football, you like to win the Super Bowl," Lukas says. "Basketball, the Final Four. I wouldn't want to go through life, set all those earnings and stakes records, and then sit back and say, 'By golly, we couldn't win the Derby!' I don't know if it will be in '87, '88 or '98, but I want to win one. I want that trophy to sit next to the others. It's a personal-pride thing."
Lately, with more and more pride and passion invested in it, Lukas's pursuit of victory at Churchill Downs has been increasingly ill-fated. Last year many observers thought he had the best horse in the race, Badger Land, but the colt broke in a tangle, was rushed to make up lost ground and came up empty off the turn for home, a victim of his early exertions. This year the colt who appeared to have the best chance to win for him will not even make it to the Derby. Last Saturday, Talinum, a beautifully bred son of Alydar out of the stakes-winning Water Lily, pulled up lame after a morning gallop. Lukas instructed his son and chief assistant, Jeff, to scratch him from the race.
Talinum's injury did not leave the trainer without hope at the Downs. It left him with War, the winner, by disqualification, of the tightly fought Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 23, a race in which the colt ran gamely and flashed signs that he was improving. It also left him the 1986 2-year-old champion, Capote, who was touted for months as the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. After poor performances in his only two races this year, though, many observers eliminated Capote from consideration as a serious factor in the Derby. But Lukas has not lost faith in him, so Capote remains part of a bewildering puzzle.
What makes this Kentucky Derby one of the most unfathomable in recent memory is the presence of so many horses who could win it without shocking anyone. Chief among them is the probable favorite, Demons Begone, and at his throat are Cryptoclearance, Gulch and Bet Twice. Also in this field of rapidly maturing 3-year-olds, all eligible to improve suddenly and unexpectedly, is some handy loose change: Masterful Advocate, Leo Castelli and Alysheba.
"This is a strange year," says Leroy Jolley, trainer of Gulch and Leo Castelli. "Having had the benefit of seeing almost every race, I still can't tell who's the best horse. I don't think it's a case of their all being bad. I think they're all pretty good, and evenly matched."
So the Derby has more than a touch of mystery to it. It emerges as a handicapper's delight, a veritable banana split of flavors and toppings that will leave bettors picking here and tasting there and puzzling over just where to begin.