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Actually, there hadn't been much to recommend him as a 2-year-old. He had run seven times as a baby but had won only twice, earning $25,576. For one race, in fact, Lukas had shipped him to Pomona, a half-mile bullring run by the Los Angeles County Fair Association. He was fourth there, beaten by three-quarters of a length. It's a long way from Pomona to Pimlico on Preakness Day.
"He started to show signs of being good," said Lukas, who once coached high school basketball in LaCrosse, Wis., "but he never seemed to put it all together. He was like a big freshman athlete. When I was coaching, I told my assistants, 'Don't spend all your time with the 5'9" guy who's dribbling behind his back and running here and there. The 6'6" freshman who is staggering around and can't tie his shoes and can't hold the ball, spend it with him. If you wait three years, you can't find the little guy on Saturday night, and the 6'6" guy is throwing them in from everywhere."
Signs that Codex was more than just a useful sort came last winter at Santa Anita in his fourth start of 1980. Leaving the gate in an allowance race, he dragged his rider, Pat Valenzuela, to the lead and galloped home to win by more than five lengths, racing the mile and a sixteenth in 1:42, only two-fifths longer than it had taken Raise a Man, a Derby contender at the time, to win the San Felipe Handicap the day before.
Lukas was mildly ecstatic, because the race had taught him what he had wanted to know about Codex, had told him that he had found the key to the colt—the training pattern that best suited Codex' temperament and needs. "We discovered," says Lukas, "that he liked his works to be short, to be fairly slow, and that he liked them spaced further apart than the average horse. We also found out he likes to run his own races. You find these things through trial and error. This is what Codex wanted."
What he wanted, he continued to get. He worked an easy half mile in :48[1/5] on March 26, and four days later, at 25-1, he was clearly the ablest 3-year-old in California when he won the Santa Anita Derby by a neck from Rumbo, running the nine furlongs in a fiery 1:47[3/5].
Lukas is a 44-year-old former rodeo cowboy who became the nation's leading conditioner of quarter horses. "I had done about all I could do in the quarter-horse business," he says. "I'd go to Santa Anita and think, 'I'd like to try these guys.' " Three years ago, with seven horses, he made the move, joining the thoroughbred community in California. He arrived with a flourish. He trimmed his barn with white picket fencing, beds of flowers and freshly painted feed tubs, which he uses only for decoration; he feeds with other tubs. Some racetrackers regarded him as all flash, no pan, and his volubility and air of self-confidence stirred resentment. But Lukas quickly began demonstrating that he was learning the running game. Now in 1980 he is the leading U.S. trainer in money won.
Like every horseman, Lukas had an eye cocked for a Derby horse. And suddenly he discovered that he had one, yet didn't. "I felt an emptiness," he says. "I've never watched the Derby on TV without swelling up inside. And here I was going to watch it on TV again and with a genuine contender in my barn."
So Lukas set his sights on the Preakness, but he knew that the manager of Tartan Stable, John Nerud, who believes the classic 3-year-old races come too early in the year and whose say would be decisive, would probably be inclined to keep the colt in California. On May 5, the Monday following the Kentucky Derby, Nerud flew to California to have a look at the Tartan horses, especially Codex, whom he hadn't seen in more than two months. What he saw was a nicely balanced, beautiful horse, with powerful quarters, good bone and a striking coat.
The next day, after watching Codex gallop, the two men were driving toward San Diego in Lukas' Mercedes when Nerud said, "Your horse looks good. You'd like to run him in the Preakness, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah, John, I really would," said Lukas.