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At 4 p.m. on May 1, about an hour and a half before post time of the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby, trainer D. Wayne Lukas strode down the dirt floor of his half-darkened shed at Churchill Downs and pulled himself up in front of the only stall in which a light was shining. Turning back, Lukas called to the two turf writers he had been talking to at the end of the barn. "Come on down here," said Lukas, the leading trainer in earnings in the U.S. for the last 10 years. "I want to give you guys a treat."
The two writers swept down the shed to the stall. "Just look at this colt!" said Lukas, holding out a hand and introducing the guests to his Derby horse, Union City, with an almost fatherly sense of wonder and pride, his grin as broad as the keyboard on a baby grand. "This horse is 5 to 1 in the pre-Derby betting," said Lukas. "Let me tell you something: If the 135,000 people over there today could be standing where you are right now, he'd be 3 to 2."
That is precisely how Union City looked on the far turn at Churchill Downs during the race, when he loomed up five-wide and full of run, like a favorite about to raise hell. But then he disappeared as though the ground beneath his feet had opened up and swallowed him. Union City galloped home wearily in 15th place, some 18 lengths behind victorious Sea Hero.
Two weeks later, on the day of the Preakness Stakes, Lukas took no writers to the shed at Pimlico to show off the colt. In fact, Union City's scant training regimen—he had no serious workouts between the Derby and the Preakness—had raised suspicions that something might be wrong with the colt. Those suspicions were later heightened when one horseman at Pimlico reported having seen Union City standing in ice twice a day in the days before the Preakness.
If Union City's performance at the Derby had left Lukas "mystified," as he described it, what happened to the horse in the Preakness brought him to despair. Union City was racing near the leaders down the backside when he shattered the sesamoid bones in his right front ankle, hobbled horribly and limped to a stop. "Lukas's face turned absolutely white," says New York Post turf writer Jenny Kellner, who was standing near him. Lukas and Robert Copelan, Union City's veterinarian, jumped in a racetrack car and rushed to the colt's side, but there was nothing anyone could do to save him.
Shortly after Union City had been destroyed by lethal injection, several reporters encountered Lukas in the stable area at Pimlico. When one of them began wondering aloud if the colt may not have been 100% going into the race, Lukas exploded. "That's ridiculous!" he said. "I try to be honest with you people, and I am now. I do my job. I get up every morning at three a.m. That's more than I can say for the——who are second-guessing me."
Indeed, when asked later by SI about the prerace icing of Union City, Lukas erupted again: "That is so much——. The horse was physically fine. Periodically we ice horses. What we did is cool him out in cold-water bandages each day. It is a common practice." Many trainers routinely ice horses to keep their legs cold and tight, but they also do it to relieve soreness and inflammation.
Over the next several days Lukas's decision to run Union City in the Preakness—and the health of his entire operation—came under attack. Headlines asked DID HE HAVE TO DIE? (New York Post), TWIST OF FATE OR BAD GAMBLE? (The Washington Post) and LUKAS MUST FACE QUESTION: DID AMBITION RULE JUDGMENT? (Lexington Herald-Leader). By the next week the 57-year-old Lukas was walking around the stable area at New York's Belmont Park looking like the oldest man on earth. "I feel that I was unfairly criticized," said Lukas. "It was like a pack of wolves on a wounded deer."
On May 19, the Wednesday after the Preakness, Lukas was looking so despondent that those who care about him grew alarmed. That day, one of his former assistants, Kiaran McLaughlin, saw Lukas at Belmont and then called one of Lukas's best friends in the racing business, Kentucky bloodstock agent Paul Paternostro. "Wayne's isolated," McLaughlin told Paternostro. "He looks real lonely. Nobody's talking to him. He's got his head down and his baseball cap pulled over his eyes. Even the way he walks. I just think he needs a call."
The conversation between McLaughlin and Paternostro was the beginning of a crisis intervention engineered by Lukas's closest friends, including his son and chief assistant, Jeff. After talking to McLaughlin, Paternostro called Lee Eaton, another Kentucky bloodstock agent, from whom Lukas had bought many of his best yearlings, and Bob French, a Texas oilman for whom Lukas had purchased and trained some of the fastest runners of their day. Eaton and French, in turn, called others. By the time the lines stopped humming, 10 people had dropped everything to wing off to California to tell Lukas how much he meant to them and to help him out of whatever troubles he was having.