Early on a Sunny morning in August 1982, Gene Klein strolled through the grandstand at Del Mar racetrack near San Diego and bumped into Dick Butkus, the former linebacker of the Chicago Bears.
"What are you doing here?" Klein asked. Butkus explained that he was part owner of a couple of racehorses. He was there that morning to watch one of them work out and to get together with the horse's trainer, a man named D. Wayne Lukas. Klein had read about him.
"Lukas. Doesn't he have Landaluce, the great filly?" said Klein.
"Would you like to see her?" Butkus asked. Klein followed him to the barns; Lukas was there, and Butkus introduced them. Eugene Klein and D. Wayne Lukas shook hands, and the racing game hasn't been the same since.
At the time, Klein was the principal owner of the San Diego Chargers of the NFL. He had turned 61 that year and had suffered a heart attack a year earlier that had nearly killed him. Moreover, he was sick of the football business. He had had it with the demands of players to renegotiate contracts, the shenanigans of opportunistic agents, the stress of lawsuits, the tedium of NFL owners' meetings.
In 1982, Klein had endured his most disturbing episode in football. A few months after the Chargers had beaten the Dolphins 41-38 in Miami in the playoffs, Klein says, he was told by a federal investigator that one of his players had purchased a kilo of cocaine in Florida, brought it back on the victory flight and shared it with some team members in San Diego. "On the bleeping airplane!" Klein bellows now. The next week in the AFC championship game, the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Chargers 27-7; in frigid Riverfront Stadium, the windchill factor made it feel like 59� below zero.
"That team was in a stupor that day—and I thought it was the cold," says Klein. "A lot of them had a lot of cocaine in them. And here was our shot to get to the Super Bowl! I said to myself. What are you doing? You want to go back into intensive care?" The players denied the allegations to Klein, and charges were never brought, but Klein had had enough.
So on that morning at Del Mar when he ran into Butkus, Klein was a man in search of something else to do with his time—and his money. The visit to the racetrack that day had been suggested by his wife, Joyce, whom he married in 1976 after the death of his wife of 30 years, Fran, and a shortlived second marriage. Joyce had acquired a half interest in three broodmares, but Klein paid little attention. "I didn't know what a broodmare was," he says. A notoriously impatient man with no interest in handicapping, Klein could never figure out what to do at a track between races. "There wasn't enough action for me."
But then he shook hands with Lukas, who was already on his way to redefining all the old notions of action in racing and to becoming the nation's leading trainer. Since then, Klein has been the most conspicuous presence at Lukas's side—writing checks to buy many of the horses that the trainer selects at sales; building a 120-stall training center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., near San Diego, where Lukas can supervise the conditioning of the animals; and walking into the winner's circle at tracks across the land.
It has been a dizzying ascent to the top of the racing world. Since he and Lukas started doing business together in 1982, Klein has established himself as the winningest owner in America. For the last three years he has accepted the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading owner. In 1987, horses he owned won 41 stakes races and $5,743,134, both American records. So far in Klein's short career, his horses have won more than 300 races and some $19 million in purses.