Late last Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, D. Wayne Lukas set down the phone, burst from his tack room in the stakes barn, raised his arms like goalposts and announced to all the world the latest score. His world, of course, and his score.
"We got three in a row!" Lukas, the nation's winningest trainer, proclaimed jubilantly of the day's performances by a trio of his horses. "Be Cool won the Dogwood Stakes at Churchill Downs. A Wild Ride won the Shuvee Handicap at Belmont Park, and"—here Lukas pointed up the shed to where a muscular, sleek black colt came sauntering toward him, pulling his hotwalker along—"this horse right here."
An hour earlier, this-horse-right-here, Farma Way, had charged to the lead in the Pimlico Special, fought off a challenge by Jolie's Halo down the backstretch, raced through a fiery first six furlongs in 1:10 flat and then delivered the coup de grace by driving through the final quarter mile in 24 seconds to draw off and win by three lengths. His final time, 1:52[2/5], for the 1[3/16] miles shattered the track record—set in the same race last year by another Lukas-trained monster, Criminal Type, the 1990 Horse of the Year—by three fifths of a second.
The victory not only crowned one of Lukas's most memorable days as a cross-country horseman, but it also advertised Farma Way, who nine weeks earlier had won the Santa Anita Handicap, as the finest, fastest racehorse in the land and the early front-runner for Horse of the Year. It was a dominant performance over one of the strongest fields of older horses assembled in years. Together, the seven horses in the Pimlico Special had won nearly $9 million lifetime. Last year's Preakness winner, Summer Squall, made a determined but futile run at Farma Way through the lane to finish second, 2� lengths in front of a fading Jolie's Halo, who had been the talk of winter racing in Florida off an eight-length triumph in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 9. This time Jolie's Halo finished a stretched neck in front of Festin, winner of the April 13 Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park, while the giant bay colt Unbridled, who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic on the way to the 1990 3-year-old championship, wound up a dirt-bespattered sixth.
This was no ordinary running of the Special. This time it was part of something quite extraordinary, the most imaginative innovation in racing since 1982, when John Gaines dreamed up the idea of the Breeders' Cup. The Special was the fourth of a series of 10 races for older horses, known as the American Championship Racing Series (ACRS), that began this year with the Donn Handicap and will end with the 1?-mile Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 15. Three of the races carry purses of $1 million, and none is worth less than $500,000. "If the Breeders' Cup is our Super Bowl, then this is our World Series," says Happy Alter, trainer of Jolie's Halo.
With some twists, of course. Under a graduated point system—in which the winner of a race gets 10 points and a fifth-place finisher gets one—the horse with the most points at the end of the season wins a $750,000 bonus. The idea for the ACRS was conceived by Barry Weisbord, a bloodstock broker out of Lexington, Ky., to promote and market a sport that has fallen on difficult times (SI, Fading Fast, April 22). Weisbord saw the need for a series of older-horse races that would have the same star appeal for network television as does the Triple Crown campaign for 3-year-olds.
Dennis Swanson, the president of ABC Sports, committed his network to televise nine of the 10 races. ESPN picked up the 10th, the Oaklawn Handicap. The financial engine behind the ACRS is simulcasting, in which the races are beamed to a vast network of wagering outlets at racetracks and betting parlors around the country. The sums bet in the series so far have been staggering, beyond Weisbord's wildest dreams. He estimates that over 600,000 people across the nation bet $6.8 million on the Oaklawn Handicap, the third race in the series. On Saturday, at 224 betting sites in the U.S. and Canada, players put down $6.9 million on the Pimlico Special. The old axiom remains indisputable: Competitive horses attract competitive players.
After last week, three horses—Farma Way, Jolie's Halo and Festin—were tied in the standings with 20 points each, but Summer Squall, with only two starts (and seven points) this year, is just getting good. "He'll be tough with more seasoning," Lukas said. No tougher than the seal-coated Farma Way was on Saturday, though. "He's so slick, I saw a fly slip on his back and break a leg," said Lukas. "It was a hell of a day."