D. Wayne Lukas had been hyping his colt Houston for so long he was beginning to sound like Joe Isuzu, as in: Would I lie to you? The 53-year-old trainer has never been shy about touting his horses, but the things he had been saying about the son of Seattle Slew were positively rhapsodic. "He has star quality; he draws stares when he walks to the track. His stride is as beautiful as you'll ever see. He's sooo smart. He's perfect."
Last week at New York's Aqueduct racetrack before the running of the $115,000 Bay Shore Stakes, Lukas marveled on. "Look at him," he said the morning of the race. "If you wanted to put a horse's head on a calendar to show how God meant a horse's head to look, you'd use his."
There was just one problem. Sure, Houston was undefeated and sure, he's drop-dead good-looking, but handsome is as handsome does. And Houston hadn't done anything at a racetrack since December, when he won a mere allowance race. In February, Lukas had talked about running the colt in the seven-furlong Bay Shore, but nobody thought he would actually do it. On any given day in March or April, New York's erratic weather can produce track conditions that range from frozen tundra to bog.
Lukas learned that lesson in the spring of 1987, when his colt Capote waded through chocolate mousse at Aqueduct in the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial, and was badly beaten in both. The California-based trainer didn't want to take that risk again, so he tried to enter Houston in a couple of allowance races at Santa Anita before committing to New York, but the allowance races failed to attract the requisite number of horses. Time was running out. To earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 6, Houston needed to run, both to sharpen up for the grueling classic and to add to his meager earnings of $27,600. Almost out of options, Lukas decided to take his chances in the Bay Shore, and flew the colt from California to New York on the Wednesday before the race.
April 2, 1989
It was to be Houston's 3-year-old debut, his first Derby prep race, a make-or-break chance to become a contender. It was also time for Lukas to put his horse where his mouth was. As usual, the trainer sounded confident. "Barring Seattle Slew himself being in the race," Lukas said earlier in the week, "nobody's going to bother us. He's going to run well."
But Friday morning it looked as if Lukas's worst-case scenario was unfolding. It started to rain, and it kept raining hard. It was bad enough that Houston had drawn the inside post, the worst position in a race that starts out of the chute, as the Bay Shore does. Now rain. "I could live with the rail," said Lukas, "if we could get a fast track. But this is the worst weather. They ought to take away my license for having brought my horse 3,000 miles for this." Lukas had a plane standing by to pursue Plan B, which was to fly Houston to Hot Springs, Ark., where the colt could run in the 1[1/16]-mile Rebel Stakes on April 1, the distance be damned.
Early Saturday morning the sun was out and a breeze was blowing, but Lukas still said he was 90% certain he would scratch. Lukas decided to delay a decision until after the first race, a seven-furlong sprint in which, oddly enough, he had a horse breaking out of the one hole. The horse ran well, finishing third, but more important, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. gave thumbs-up to the track's condition. Houston would run.
Lukas looked a little grim as he led the colt over the track to the saddling enclosure. Four months is a long time between races. Apparently the fans didn't think so, though. They sent the colt off as the 1-2 favorite in a field of six. Houston did not disappoint. After laying off the rail, he cruised past the leader, Mr. Nickerson, leaving the‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄ pole and continued to accelerate, loping home, untouched by the whip, to win by an impressive 10½ lengths. In just one minute and 22[2/5] seconds, the look on Lukas's face had gone from grim to grin. "That was a nice little tightener," he said in a rare case of understatement. "Doesn't he just gli-i-i-ide through the stretch? He doesn't labor at all. It's good to get this race out of the way." Said jockey Pincay, "Wayne Lukas has been telling me about this horse for a long time. Boy, is he right. He might be the best 3-year-old I ever rode."
The extravagant praise Lukas had heaped upon his colt stemmed in part from the extravagant price he paid for him. At the July 1987 yearling sale at Keeneland, Lukas reached into his own pocket and ponied up the $2.9 million purchase price. "Me and my bank statement were all on our own in there," says Lukas. "I was so convinced he was a good horse, I was going to do whatever it took to get him. That was the ultimate for me, of putting it all on the line, of saying, I think I'm right and I'm going to go for it."
Lukas, who knew the colt would go for at least $2 million, had tried to talk Gene Klein, Bob French and some of the trainer's other owners into becoming partners in the deal, but they didn't want to spend that much money on one animal. "They felt," said Lukas. "that if they were going to spend $2 million, why not buy, say, three $600,000 ones and spread the risk. It's good sound logic, but I was so taken with this horse, I knew I'd be sick if I didn't get him." French and another owner, Barry Beal, subsequently bought into the horse, alleviating somewhat the financial, if not the professional, risk Lukas had taken.
Houston didn't let him down, breaking his maiden at Belmont Park last July by an astounding 12¼ lengths. But he bucked his shins, and Lukas chose not to run him for nearly five months. Houston won his next start, an allowance race at Hollywood Park on Dec. 3, by a head. By then, the colt's light racing schedule had backstretchers calling him the mystery horse and scoffing at Lukas. And yet in the winter-book betting in Las Vegas, Houston was the second choice to win the Kentucky Derby, behind only Easy Goer, last year's 2-year-old champion colt and a solid winner in his 3-year-old debut in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park three weeks ago.
With Houston's win in the Bay Shore, the wraps and the raps are now off the mystery horse, and Easy Goer finally has a strong challenger. This year's Kentucky Derby sets up an East Coast-West Coast confrontation the likes of which has not been seen since 1978. when Affirmed and Alydar duked it out through the Triple Crown races. But the two contenders are unlikely to meet before the first Saturday in May. Houston will race either in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8. the same day Easy Goer runs in the Gotham at Aqueduct, or the Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland on April 15 or the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 22.
Half an hour after the Bay Shore had been run and won, an unabashed Lukas said, "I guess I went out on a limb a little bit with this horse. But I don't think I was too far out. This is a gifted, nifty horse."
And that's no lie.