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In the 5 a.m. darkness that embraced the barns behind Santa Anita racetrack, the world according to trainer D. Wayne Lukas was revolving almost soundlessly, turning no less precisely than the planets in the heavens and the stars above.
Under bulb lights, in the stinging cold of the morning air inside the shed, horses came yawning to their doors and peered outside, waiting for room service. A small army of grooms spoke in hushed voices while busily slipping in and out of stalls, pitchforks in hand. Outside the barn—a Santa Anita showplace that Lukas has landscaped with grass and beds of yellow pansies and decorated with jockey statues and wrought-iron filigree—the dim silhouettes of 14 hot walkers led their horses quietly, circling an oval ring lined with buckets of drinking water. No radios were blaring music, and no urns were making coffee. Where there is a coffee pot, in the world according to Lukas, people tend to congregate and put off their work.
And work, efficiently performed and organized to the minute, is the pervading ethic of Barn 66, whose operation reflects the life, discipline and style of America's leading money-winning thoroughbred trainer for the last two years. This week, in perhaps his crowning achievement, Lukas's 3-year-old Tank's Prospect, will be one of the favorites for racing's biggest prize, the Kentucky Derby.
On this particular morning, Lukas swept into the barn through a back door, taking note of a derelict refrigerator as he breezed by. "What is that doing out there?" he asked a group of workers. "Well, it doesn't belong there. Take it across the road. I don't want a horse getting hurt by it." After a swing through the shed, he bounded into his office to the ringing of a telephone. It was Laura Cotter, his assistant in charge of his string of 40 horses at Hollywood Park, and for the next 10 minutes he detailed to her what he wanted done with them.
"Jog that one, yeah.... Gallop him two miles.... With Blue Sheep, I want to hose that ankle." Two minutes after he hung up, the phone rang again. Anticipating the call, Lukas said, "Hello, Kevin."
It was Kevin Rodine, his assistant trainer in charge of his string of 36 horses at Aqueduct in New York. One by one he went through the horses with Rodine. "Here's what I suggest you do with him: a) Put the flaxseed poultice on him for at least another two or three days, b) Get him out and walk him about 10 minutes in the shedrow every afternoon. Then I would go ahead and train that bugger. He's gonna have to fish or cut bait."
Five minutes after signing off with Rodine, the phone rang a third time. It was Barry Knight, the assistant in charge of his 22 horses at Bay Meadows, south of San Francisco. Again, Lukas anticipated the call.
"Good morning, Barry. Yeah.... How does the knee look on that horse?"
And on and on, horse by horse. By the time Lukas had overseen the training of three strings of thoroughbreds across the country, the first cock had not yet crowed at Santa Anita. Off the phone with Knight, Lukas huddled with his son, Jeff, his chief assistant in planning the morning orders for his grooms and exercise riders at Santa Anita. The two men had met, as they do every day, at 4:20 a.m. at an all-night doughnut shop. Now, at 5:45, clipboard in hand and looking like the high school and college basketball coach he once was, Lukas conferred with his riders to assign them mounts in the first set of horses to go to the track.
Moments later the grooms had the horses saddled and bridled and at the ready. The riders mounted them in the dark. Lukas strapped on a set of leather chaps and headed out the door.