If trainer D. Wayne Lukas had to name the most important female in his life right now, he might have a little problem. His wife, Shari, ranks right up there, of course. And he's absolutely gaga over his new puppy, Sunshine, a three-month-old Australian shepherd bitch who travels everywhere with him. But then there's his fabulous filly, a strapping roan by the name of Winning Colors.
Last Friday, Lukas sat in his tack room at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., playing with Sunshine and talking about Saturday's $500,000 Santa Anita Derby. At the mention of Winning Colors, a big smile spread across his face. "When she walks out tomorrow," said Lukas, "you'll get the message loud and clear. She's very impressive. When you see her run, you'll be surprised."
He was right on all counts. On a weekend in which three important Kentucky Derby prep races were run, Winning Colors did indeed send the clearest message. The surprise wasn't that she won—she went off as the 5-2 favorite—but the way she won. The big filly took the lead at the start and never looked back at the eight colts chasing her as jockey Gary Stevens rode her home in a speedy 1:47[4/5] for the mile and an eighth. Winning Colors' winning margin was a stunning 7½ lengths. "She's a monster!" whooped owner Gene Klein in the winner's circle. "She really put the colts away. There's no question she'll go into the Derby as one of the favorites. Kentucky, here we come!"
Horses in the two other Derby preps also got their tickets punched for Louisville. On Friday afternoon in Lexington, Ky., Woody Stephens sent out his slightly tarnished winter-book favorite, Forty Niner, in the seven-furlong Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland, and won by five lengths.
On Saturday in the Gotham mile at Aqueduct, yet another colt stepped into the ever-changing, bring-on-the-long-shots Derby picture. Private Terms, an undefeated but little-respected Maryland colt who had run only against weak competition, outran Seeking the Gold, an undefeated and much-ballyhooed colt who had raced only in Florida. The two will meet again on April 23 in the Wood Memorial, joining Brian's Time (the Florida Derby winner) and Cherokee Colony (the Flamingo winner) in a key pre-Derby showdown.
But suddenly the hottest horse on the road to Churchill Downs is Winning Colors. This was no delicate little slip of a filly that Lukas brought out on Saturday to go against the colts for the first time. In fact, at 16 hands, 3 inches and 1,100-plus pounds, she was bigger than any other horse in the race.
Lukas has a way with distaffers. He put together the breeding that produced the gray filly Lady's Secret, who went on to become Horse of the Year two years ago. So when he spotted this one at the Keeneland summer sale in 1986, Lukas made sure he got her, forking over $575,000 for the daughter of Caro. The next spring, Lukas and son Jeff, his assistant trainer, began to think they might have something special. "When Jeff and I walked through all our coming 2-year-olds that April," says Lukas, "I remember he said, 'If I get first draft choice, I'm going to take the gray filly.' " The younger Lukas got first pick. "Jeff deserves so much credit," says Wayne. "I've nudged him a little here and there, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say he's been the whole show with her."
Lukas and son decided to bring Winning Colors along slowly. "The one thing I learned, taking fillies to the Derby," says Lukas, "is you have to bring them into it lightly raced and give them time between their last race and the Derby. I learned that with Althea la filly he trained for the 1984 Derby]. Her Arkansas Derby that year was mind-boggling, but it was only two weeks before the Kentucky Derby." Althea finished 19th at Churchill Downs.
At the time of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, Lukas decided not to run Winning Colors. "I said, 'I think we're going to leave the best 2-year-old filly in the world in the barn,' " he says now. "It was difficult. It takes a lot of mental discipline to wait on one like this, but I feel good about it now."
Winning Colors raced only twice as a 2-year-old, winning both times. This year Lukas raced her three times against fillies, and she lost once, by a neck, to Goodbye Halo on Feb. 20. "We got a little overconfident," says Lukas. "We hadn't put any real good works into her. Consequently she wasn't as tight as we thought." But Winning Colors won her next race by eight lengths, demolishing the fillies in the Santa Anita Oaks on March 13. That's when Lukas decided it was time to put her in with the boys.
In the Santa Anita Derby she was up against the likes of Charlie Whittingham's Lively One, the second choice, and Laz Barrera's Mi Preferido, who had won four of his five starts. But Winning Colors put them all away with a flick of her tail. "I expected her to win," Lukas said afterward, "but I was a little surprised at how she rocketed along and how easily she did it."
"I never had a filly who could go at that pace and finish like that," said jockey Stevens. "She's just unbelievable." Pat Day, who had guided Forty Niner to victory on Friday and rode Ruhlmann to an eighth-place finish at Santa Anita, quickly reassessed the Kentucky Derby picture: "I haven't seen a colt in the East who can run with her."
Winning Colors will not race again before the first Saturday in May, giving her the rest Lukas feels she should have. But her trainer isn't counting his rose petals yet. After all, Lukas is 0 for 12 in the Derby. "A lot can happen," he said, "and we know better than to go floating over the Twin Spires, thinking it's all going to be rosy. We know how tough it is."
True. But at least he won't be lonely for female companionship.