For D. Wayne Lukas, the search for glory at Churchill Downs continues; his sometimes star-crossed quest to fulfill his grandest dream goes on. He calls the Kentucky Derby "the gold ring" to distinguish it from all the other titles and trophies offered in the sport.
In recent years Lukas has won his share—far more than anyone else, in fact. Although he ventured into the thoroughbred world only nine years ago as an expatriate from the quarter horse business, he has overwhelmed the sport with his presence, setting records that only he now seems capable of breaking. Last year his coast-to-coast empire of horses earned a record $12,344,595. It was the fourth year in a row that he topped all money winners and the second straight year that he won the Eclipse Award as America's champion trainer.
Lukas-trained horses won 64 stakes in 1986—the most formidable of them. Lady's Secret, was voted Horse of the Year—and this season he is setting a pace that could make last year's look tepid by comparison. As of last Friday, his horses had already won 28 stakes races, twice the number they had won at the same point in 1986. "My whole stable is running straight through the bridle," says Lukas.
This Saturday he will straighten the bridles on three horses—War, Capote and On the Line—for the 113th running of the Kentucky Derby. Ah, yes, the pursuit of the elusive gold ring lures the Californian east again, as it has so many times in the past. Over the last six years, Lukas has run nine horses in the Derby, and the closest he has come to winning was in 1981, when the long shot Partez finished third. Twice his horses have gone off as the favorite—in 1983, when Marfa finished fifth (as part of a three-horse Lukas entry), and in 1984, when he actually came armed with two fillies, Life's Magic (who was eighth) and Althea (19th). Timid and orthodox Lukas is not, but his disappointments at the Derby have cut deep.
"If you're going to coach football, you like to win the Super Bowl," Lukas says. "Basketball, the Final Four. I wouldn't want to go through life, set all those earnings and stakes records, and then sit back and say, 'By golly, we couldn't win the Derby!' I don't know if it will be in '87, '88 or '98, but I want to win one. I want that trophy to sit next to the others. It's a personal-pride thing."
Lately, with more and more pride and passion invested in it, Lukas's pursuit of victory at Churchill Downs has been increasingly ill-fated. Last year many observers thought he had the best horse in the race, Badger Land, but the colt broke in a tangle, was rushed to make up lost ground and came up empty off the turn for home, a victim of his early exertions. This year the colt who appeared to have the best chance to win for him will not even make it to the Derby. Last Saturday, Talinum, a beautifully bred son of Alydar out of the stakes-winning Water Lily, pulled up lame after a morning gallop. Lukas instructed his son and chief assistant, Jeff, to scratch him from the race.
Talinum's injury did not leave the trainer without hope at the Downs. It left him with War, the winner, by disqualification, of the tightly fought Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 23, a race in which the colt ran gamely and flashed signs that he was improving. It also left him the 1986 2-year-old champion, Capote, who was touted for months as the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. After poor performances in his only two races this year, though, many observers eliminated Capote from consideration as a serious factor in the Derby. But Lukas has not lost faith in him, so Capote remains part of a bewildering puzzle.
What makes this Kentucky Derby one of the most unfathomable in recent memory is the presence of so many horses who could win it without shocking anyone. Chief among them is the probable favorite, Demons Begone, and at his throat are Cryptoclearance, Gulch and Bet Twice. Also in this field of rapidly maturing 3-year-olds, all eligible to improve suddenly and unexpectedly, is some handy loose change: Masterful Advocate, Leo Castelli and Alysheba.
"This is a strange year," says Leroy Jolley, trainer of Gulch and Leo Castelli. "Having had the benefit of seeing almost every race, I still can't tell who's the best horse. I don't think it's a case of their all being bad. I think they're all pretty good, and evenly matched."
So the Derby has more than a touch of mystery to it. It emerges as a handicapper's delight, a veritable banana split of flavors and toppings that will leave bettors picking here and tasting there and puzzling over just where to begin.
Most will start with Demons Begone on the basis of his record this year at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where he raced to three consecutive stakes victories in blistering times—the one-mile Southwest Stakes, by eight lengths, in 1:34[3/5]; the 1[1/16]-mile Rebel Stakes, by four, in 1:41[2/5]; and the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Arkansas Derby, by 3½, in 1:47[3/5]. Demons' Arkansas performances are difficult to evaluate because the running surface there was as souped-up as a bobsled run, and his competition generally ranged in quality from thin to thinner. The colt's trainer, Phil Hauswald, understands the suspicions that bedevil the Demon, a son of the Preakness winner Elocutionist.
"He hasn't beaten that proven competition yet, but I don't know what I can do about that," Hauswald says. "Everybody knew where I was going to run. I ran right where I said I would. I haven't ducked anybody. Nobody seemed to want to come in and try him for the half-million-dollar race [the Arkansas Derby]. What can you do but take what comes to you?"
One thing is certain about Demons Begone: No one has more at stake in potential purses than his owner, John Ed Anthony. If the colt finishes first in the Kentucky Derby, which is worth more than $500,000 to the winner, the Demon will also take home a $1 million bonus for having won the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby as well. "It stands to be an awful big payday for this horse if he wins," says Hauswald. "Not to mention what the Derby is worth to a horse in syndication value."
Until Saturday, the same day that Talinum was injured, Hauswald figured that Temperate Sil was the colt to beat at the Derby. But that morning, trainer Charlie Whittingham confirmed that Sil had developed a respiratory virus and would scratch from the run for the roses.
Whittingham had won at Churchill Downs last year with Ferdinand, and he returned last week with the 55-year-old Bill Shoemaker, Ferdinand's rider, to try to duplicate that effort. This was to be a sentimental journey, two golden oldies trying to recapture the past. They had brought Temperate Sil to Louisville off a smashing victory in the Santa Anita Derby. The dappled gray son of Temperence Hill had earlier been defeated twice over off-tracks in California, but he caught a fast surface in the derby at Santa Anita and won by 5½ lengths, whipping the swift odds-on favorite, Masterful Advocate, who ran an uncharacteristically dull second, his first defeat of the year. And now, in one of the small ironies that lie along the road to the Kentucky Derby, Masterful Advocate will be going to the gate on Saturday and Temperate Sil will remain in his stall. Meanwhile, Shoemaker was left to look for a mount, which should be no problem for a rider who has already won four Derbies.
The 74-year-old Whittingham took his setback in stride and now says, gracefully, that he believed all along that Demons Begone was the horse of the hour. "You have to take Demons Begone because he's unbeaten all winter," says Whittingham. Pausing, he adds, "But it's a little easier to win in Hot Springs."
It was decidedly easier in Arkansas than it was in Florida, where most of the best 3-year-olds this winter banged heads in races that were most competitive and most searching. Perhaps the most revealing race of all was the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 4, in which three horses finished as if pulling the same chariot, within bobbing heads of one another.
Running on the outside that day, Cryptoclearance edged No More Flowers by a head in the last stride, with the ill-fated Talinum a nose behind in third. Any of the three could have won the race, which made the Kentucky Derby picture all the more baffling. What happened to Bet Twice, for instance, the odds-on favorite? Just 13 days earlier, on March 22, he had run to a handy 2½-length victory over No More Flowers. In the Florida Derby, No More Flowers beat him by four.
Bet Twice's trainer, Jimmy Croll, said the horse appeared "very dull" in the paddock. His jockey, Craig Perret, said that he was unusually sluggish in the post parade and ran an uninspired race, though he did have traffic problems. "When I first hit him and asked him inside the half-mile pole, he just didn't go anywhere," says Perret. "Usually, when you first ask him, he goes. This time he inched forward. I didn't have no horse." Throw away that lackluster performance, and Bet Twice is worthy of strong consideration in the Derby.
No need to throw anything away as far as Cryptoclearance is concerned. He was the most consistent 3-year-old in Florida this winter. Besides winning the Florida Derby, he won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah on Feb. 7, before Talinum shipped in from California to beat him by a desperate half a length in the Flamingo on Feb. 28. Both horses ran a solid race, and it set Crypto up for his victory in the Florida Derby.
Tall and angular, Cryptoclearance is by no means a picture horse. "He's a narrow little horse," says his trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, who, at 60, will saddle his first Derby starter on Saturday. "He can get through holes good, we hope." Schulhofer believes the 1¼-mile Derby distance will suit Cryptoclearance, who is a son of Fappiano and the Hoist the Flag mare Naval Orange. "I think the longer they go, the better he'll like it," he said. "I'm just happy to have a shot at the Derby. I always said I wouldn't come here unless I had a chance to win."
They all say that, of course—it's part of the catechism recited by every Derby trainer—but some do have a chance, and some don't. No More Flowers, for one, has at least an outside shot. He tired in Talinum's Flamingo, finishing fifth. But a month later he ran like a racehorse while chasing Bet Twice in the Fountain of Youth and earned his way to Kentucky in that blanket finish he shared with Crypto and Talinum in the Florida Derby.
"This horse has already passed the acid test by getting beat with just a bob of the head in the Florida Derby, and he's getting better with every race," Happy Alter, trainer of No More Flowers, said on Friday. The next day, No More Flowers finished a dull second in the one-mile Derby Trial at the Downs, the final Derby prep. He was beaten soundly by, yes, another Lukas-trained colt, On the Line, whose victory—his first in a stakes—earned him a start in the Derby.
As if the Derby mosaic weren't confusing enough after the duels in Florida and the races in Arkansas and California, along came Gulch in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 18 to muddle it further. Last summer, after winning four straight stakes for 2-year-olds, Gulch looked like everyone's Derby horse. But he lost four of his next five starts before his victory by a head over Gone West in the nine-furlong Wood. That race confirmed that Gulch, who had run on or close to the lead in his best races as a 2-year-old, had recently developed a new running style and had the ability to come from off the pace—a fact that again made him a worthy Derby prospect.
"Gulch ran so good, such a game race in the Wood," says Jolley. "And he came out of it so good."
Five days later, Gulch's stablemate, Leo Castelli, was racing past Alysheba in the stretch run of the Blue Grass, looking much the best in the race, when Alysheba ducked into him and almost dropped him. Leo Castelli finished a close third, but he was placed second on the disqualification of Alysheba, and was on his way to Louisville to join Gulch in the Derby. "He is just really getting tough, just really getting to the point where he can compete with these kind of horses," says Jolley.
So is War, who gave Lukas another Derby starter when he won the Blue Grass, the colt's second stakes victory in a row. "He's got tactical speed and he's strong and sound," says Lukas. "I don't think he has the charisma and pizzazz of a lot of the others, but he'll have something to say about the Derby."
If he does, it will be the best thing that has happened to his owner. Tommy Gentry, in a long while. The popular commercial breeder from Kentucky recently filed for bankruptcy, and War's earnings are being used to pay off Gentry's creditors.
War should have more to say about the Derby than Capote, the colt that Lukas has been touting all spring and grooming specially to win at Churchill Downs. In each of his two starts this year—in the Gotham and the Wood, both on muddy tracks at Aqueduct—he raced on or near the early pace before fading in the stretch to finish fourth. Lukas blames the mud for those poor performances. He has been sharply criticized for Capote's training schedule and second-guessed for taking him to the Derby after disappointing showings in his races this spring. But Lukas remains undeterred.
"The question is, have I got him tight enough to go a mile and a quarter next Saturday?" says Lukas. "Since the Wood, he has had the best four days of his life. I like him better than at any time I've been around him. He could be a tremendous surprise."
It would be a shock to many if Capote won. Unless practically everyone but Lukas is reading Capote wrong, War is the only colt who can grab the gold ring for him this year. Chances are the ring fits elsewhere, though. Demons Begone, Bet Twice and Gulch will be tough, but the guess here is that steady, fast-closing Cryptoclearance will wear the ring—and the blanket of roses on Derby day.