On a blazing august after-noon in 1987, three horse owners strolled down to the front paddock on trainer D. Wayne Lukas's farm in Norman, Okla., to inspect a recent and costly acquisition. That yearling, a colt by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew out of the good mare Smart Angle, stood, head bent, neatly cropping grass with his baby teeth. As the men reached the white board fence, Seattle Angle, as he was then called, raised his head high and stared at them, nostrils quivering, ears pricked, alert to the smell and sounds of the strangers.
Lloyd R. (Bob) French, Barry Beal and Lukas rested their elbows on the top rail and gazed at the colt with open admiration. "Look at how well-balanced and attractive he is," said Lukas. "Seattle Slews are usually a little bit coarse, a little rawboned. They don't have that little sharp Arab ear and that intelligent, sharp head, like he does." Suddenly, as if understanding every word of praise being lavished on him, the colt reared, raced to the far end of the paddock, propped, wheeled and came racing back, his dark bay coat gleaming like well-polished mahogany. Lukas laughed with delight. "Look at him!" he cried. "He's putting on a show for us. He knows he's something special."
What was special about this colt, besides his looks and breeding, was the price Lukas had paid for him three weeks earlier at the Keeneland summer sales in Lexington, Ky. Lukas is used to spending millions on horses, but always in partnership, never alone. "Once in a while," says Lukas, "I'll see a horse that makes my heart beat a little faster, and he was one of them. The first time I saw him, I looked at him and, jeez, he was a knockout. I made up my mind right then that if my partners and I were going to buy horses, and we only got one, this was the one. Why leave the best horse there?"
Lukas, who almost always buys his racing stock out of sales rings, had figured that the Maryland-bred colt would bring between $1.8 and $2 million but was unable to convince any of his partners—Gene Klein, French, Beal and others—to spend that much money on one horse. "O.K.," thought Lukas, "I'm going to go for it." Because Lukas, the top trainer in the country, knew that this yearling would be a hot item, he chose to conceal his interest in the horse and bid anonymously, standing against the wall at the back of the cool green arena and giving his signals to a friend, who relayed the bids to Tom Caldwell, the auctioneer. As expected, the bidding was brisk and rose rapidly to $2.4 million, at which point Lukas approached French and knelt beside his aisle seat.
"Bob," said Lukas, "do you still feel the same way about this horse?"
"Yes, I do," replied French. "He's bringing an awful lot of money."
By this time the bidding was at $2.5 million. Lukas said, "O.K.." then looked up and openly bid $2.6. "I knew I was going out on a limb," he said later, "but I felt that if 35 or 40 years of studying these damn things meant anything, then I should be able to raise my hand. I never said to myself. How high is up? Where do I stop? Besides, the numbers really aren't so bad if you say them fast." The number he ended up saying was, "Twopointninemilliondollars."
Immediately afterward, French, who has known Lukas for 20 years, said to the trainer, "Wayne, I've never known you to have such strong feelings about a horse."
"I'm thrilled to death I've got him," said Lukas. "I just know in my heart this will be the right one." A few days later, French called Lukas and said maybe they could work something out financially. In the end, Lukas kept a big piece of the horse, French took a big piece and Beal a smaller piece. The partnership has yet to reveal who owns how much, but it was French who gave the colt a new name. He's from Texas, and in the past has named his horses for towns in that state—Marfa and Terlingua and Guadalupe Peak. But he was saving the big town for a big horse. And that is how Seattle Angle came to be called Houston.
At 3:05 on the afternoon of March 21, 1986, at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., the champion race mare Relaxing lay down in her stall and gave birth to a son of Alydar, a beautiful little chestnut colt with a white star on his forehead and a white sock on his left hind leg. Ogden Phipps, 80, the patriarch of the Phipps Stable, who breeds horses to race and who almost never sends them through a sales ring, kept an eye on this foal as he flourished and grew and gamboled across the rich green grass of Claiborne. He named him Easy Goer and dared to hope that the precocious colt might become a champion racehorse and maybe, just maybe, bring home to Phipps his first Kentucky Derby trophy.
Along with the other Claiborne yearlings, Easy Goer was bitted and broken at the farm in August 1987, and then put into light training. In mid-November he was shipped to trainer Shug McGaughey at the Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Fla., where he would spend the winter getting acquainted with the starting gate and training under the warm southern sun.
Just after dawn had broken one morning in February 1988, Shug and his wife, Mary Jane, stood by the training track rail at Payson Park. They watched as Easy Goer was galloped in company with other 2-year-olds. If Lukas is hyperbole, McGaughey is restraint; but on this morning, even Shug was clearly impressed. "Look at the way he's going," he said as Easy Goer flew past. "He's galloping those other horses into the ground. He's probably going to be an awfully decent colt." For Shug, it was an emotional outburst. Mary Jane, who would be the colt's exercise rider, picked up on it. "Look at his stride!" she said. "He's got such a pretty way of going."
Still, McGaughey reserved judgment; he wasn't about to get all excited over an untried colt. One evening, with the day's work over, the McGaugheys sat at their kitchen table after supper, discussing their horses, as they often do. Mary Jane began to marvel over Easy Goer once again, but Shug shook his head. "Just don't go getting too attached to him," he warned. "'He's got that clubfoot you know, and he might not be around too long."
Few if any thoroughbreds have perfect conformation, which is why trainers who rate horses on a scale of one to 10 never score a horse higher than nine. Easy Goer was no exception. His left knee turned out, an injury waiting to happen, as it was pounded again and again in workouts. "Don't worry about it," Mary Jane said. "It only turns out a little bit. Besides, he compensates for the way he's made. He's an athlete, Shug."
McGaughey shipped his horses to New York's Belmont Park in April and one morning took Easy Goer over to the track to work him out of the starting gate, to see how the colt broke. Mary Jane kicked him out of the gate and galloped on up the track. A few minutes later, a friend of McGaughey's walked up. "I just clocked your colt, Shug. Got him in 23 and change from the five-eighths to the three-eighths pole." McGaughey looked at him and shook his head. "Can't be." he said. "You ought to take that watch of yours in for repairs."
On Aug. 1, McGaughey put Easy Goer into a maiden race at Belmont, though he worried that he might be rushing the colt a bit. Easy Goer got left at the gate but recovered quickly, coming from 3½ lengths off the pace and passing two horses to get beaten by only a nose. Not a bad race for a green 2-year-old, but hardly an earthshaking debut. Certainly nothing like the performance tracksiders at Belmont had witnessed just five days earlier by a colt named Houston.
In a six-furlong race over the same track, Lukas had sent off his shiny 2-year-old, and the horse blazed the distance in 1:10[4/5] to win by a whopping 12½ lengths. The press was instantly abuzz with talk about Houston. Maybe, the media said, the price Lukas had paid for the horse wasn't as insane as some had thought.
Lukas had bought 23 yearlings at that Keeneland summer sale, and they all were shipped to his farm in Oklahoma. He would call every day to check on their progress, and always the first question he would ask his farm manager was, "How's the big horse?" In November, Houston was shipped to Lukas's training center in Del Mar, Calif. There, he was broken and put into light training.
Unlike the other horses, who could be monitored by assistants, Houston was given star treatment. Lukas, who had so much of himself invested in this one, refused to let any assistant touch him. "This horse is perfect," Lukas would tell anyone who cared to listen. "He puts every foot right. He's so smart, and he has such a presence about him." Lukas decided early that his son, Jeff, was the only other person who would train and care for Houston.
At the beginning of January, when the colt turned two, Wayne sent him to Jeff at Hollywood Park. And every day thereafter the father would call the son and ask. "How's the big horse doing?" The big horse was doing well. In morning gallops, when he would spot another horse 50 yards up the track, Houston's ears would prick forward and he would go for him, wanting to get by, to be in front. And the horse was so smart, he mastered the gate in two trips. In the spring Wayne called Jeff and said, "Take him to New York. The tracks are more forgiving and there are more stakes opportunities. And if he's as good as I think he is, he'll need that Big Apple exposure. There'll be more people paying attention, more media coverage."
At Belmont Park, the horse got ready quickly, and after Jeff worked him a few times, he was on the phone to Wayne. "Dad, this horse completely fools these exercise riders that get on him," he said. "He'll hang up a :47 half mile so easy, they'll think he went in :49." On July 27, after Houston had left the fans goggle-eyed with his 12½-length maiden win, Jeff was on the phone again. "Dad," he said, "this is a really good horse." Wayne Lukas was in horse heaven, but not for long. The next day, when Jeff made his rounds of the 40 horses in his care, running his hand over their knees and legs and ankles, he felt heat in Houston's right fore. It would be a long time before anyone would see this colt on a racetrack again.
In August the New York racing community packs up for the month and moves upstate to Saratoga. On a morning early in the meet, with the ancient elm trees along the Saratoga backstretch still swathed in veils of fog. Mary Jane strapped on her helmet and hoisted herself onto Easy Goer's back. "Let's breeze him," said Shug. "Take him a half mile in :50 or :51." When Mary Jane brought the colt back from the run, Shug was steamed. "I told you to take him in :51," he said. ''I got him in :48" Mary Jane was astonished. "I can't believe he went that fast," she said. "Well," said Shug, "everybody messes up once in a while. Next time, do what I tell you."
McGaughey picked out a seven-furlong race for the colt, and Easy Goer won in a blistering 1:22[3/5]. But McGaughey, still the skeptic, was certain that the tote machine timer had malfunctioned. As he led Easy Goer out of the winner's circle and past the saddling paddock, friends shouted out to him, "Hey, Shug, what kind of a horse is that?" McGaughey smiled at the well-wishers and kept his own counsel. "The horse just couldn't run that fast this early in the year," he thought. "There's got to be some mistake." But another voice inside him was saying, "Good God almighty, what have I got here?"
Easy Goer came out of that race with a sore left shin. McGaughey was bitterly disappointed because he thought he might have to stop his training. But he worked on the colt, hosing and poulticing the leg to draw out the heat, and it got better in a fairly short time. He decided to wait and have Easy Goer's legs further tended to in November, after the Breeders' Cup.
Two-year-olds, with bones that are still soft and growing, often get sore shins, either because of the crooked conformation of their legs or because of the heavy workouts they perform over the unforgiving surfaces of racetracks. At some time in their young lives, most thoroughbreds are blistered or pinfired, two similar processes that serve to strengthen the shinbones. Veterinarian Jim Hunt, who has treated both Easy Goer and Houston, says, "A lot of horses are out there running with sore shins, but they're not lame. It's just a minor problem. It didn't bother Easy Goer. He's so competitive, he'd run through brick walls. But some 2-year-olds are fainthearted. Sore shins might make them try not as hard."
Whether a trainer chooses pinfiring over blistering is a matter of personal philosophy. In blistering, the vet coats the horse's front legs (it is traditional to treat both legs, even if only one is sore) with a strong iodine paint once a day for 10 to 12 days. This is known as "barking," because the paint builds up like the layers of bark on a tree. The idea is to increase circulation in the legs by deliberately inflaming an already inflamed area and thereby speed the healing process. After the painting is completed, the legs are bandaged for 10 days. Then an ointment is applied and the "bark" eventually peels away.
Pinfiring is a more aggressive treatment. A firing iron, similar to one used in woodworking, is heated red-hot and the vet pierces the skin almost to the bone in a series of points, working down the leg in a horizontal pattern. Like blistering, the idea is to create swelling and inflammation that will increase blood circulation and help to strengthen the bone. After pinfiring, the horse is blistered. He's then hand-walked for about a month while the legs heal, and then, gradually, jogged and galloped until he's ready to go back into training.
Easy Goer continued to train at Saratoga with sore shins, but over at Lukas's barn, just a few yards away from McGaughey's, Houston hadn't left his stall. Speculation regarding the colt's health was rife. A reporter approached Jeff Lukas one morning in late August and asked about the big star. "We blistered him," said Jeff. "We're looking to run sometime in November. We can still have a three-or four-race campaign. That's all we want anyway."
At the end of August, the racing crowd packed up and moved back to Belmont Park. Still there was no sign of Houston on the racetrack. Finally, on Sept. 25, Jeff Lukas began sending the colt out to jog in the mornings. The horse, he insisted, was doing "just great." By mid-October, Easy Goer had won four of five races, two of them stakes; more than that, his form had so impressed people they were beginning to compare him with the great Secretariat. As for Houston, horsemen started to wonder if they would ever again see the horse break from a starting gate.
Last November the best thoroughbreds in the world stopped off at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup series. Lukas decided to take Houston to Louisville, even though the colt wasn't going to race. "I want to give him a couple of works over the track; see how he handles it," said Lukas. "Where else can I duplicate the Kentucky Derby situation? The same paddock, the same track, the same hysteria."
Easy Goer was there, too, but he was there to race, to show his stuff to a national audience. In the 1[1/6]-mile Juvenile he was sent off as the overwhelming favorite. But Easy Goer did not run well over the muddy track and finished second to Is It True—trained by Lukas. Though Easy Goer had already wrapped up the 2-year-old championship, the Breeders' Cup loss was distressing and McGaughey called a timeout. Easy Goer was shipped to New York to be pinfired, and then sent to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., to recuperate.
Houston, meanwhile, remained the recluse. Lukas took the horse home to California, worked him a few times, and finally, on Dec. 3, unveiled his expensive treasure in a 6½-furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park. Houston had to dig in to win, beating a very good colt named Sunday Silence by a head. But for the scribes of racing, Houston was back in a big way, and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas made him the second choice, behind Easy Goer to win the '89 Kentucky Derby. Yet as quickly as Houston reemerged, he disappeared. Lukas took the colt to Santa Anita but didn't work him. The rumormongers whispered that Houston was broken down or turned out on a farm. January went by and still he hadn't worked. Lukas would send him out for daily gallops, but racetrackers began referring to Houston as "the mystery horse."
On a sodden day in early February, at Santa Anita, Wayne Lukas sat in his tack room talking to a curious visitor. Suddenly, he leaped to his feet. "Come on." he said, "I'll show him to you." He charged down the shedrow, coming to a stop in front of stall 57, where Houston stood. "Look at the definition and the tone in his neck," Lukas marveled. "You can see where this horse could take you. People say to me, 'Jeez, are you high on this horse.' It's a long way to the Kentucky Derby from two wins, and there are a lot of pitfalls in the game, but I don't think it's wrong, in February of his 3-year-old year, to say, 'Damn, this is a hell of a. horse.' I never walk down this shedrow without looking in on him. And I always work my way back and forth a little more in front of stall 57."
Two weeks later, a continent away at Gulfstream Park, McGaughey sat in his tack room and looked up sharply as a groom led Easy Goer back to his stall—number 57. McGaughey fought the urge to follow the colt down the shedrow. "I prefer sitting here." he said, "than going down there and looking at him. I'm always afraid I'm gonna go in there and see something I don't especially like. He might be standing the wrong way and I'd think he's lost too much weight. Or his hair might not be sitting exactly the way I'd want it to. What I hate more than anything is the waiting."
On this morning, a TV crew was recording Easy Goer's every move. Meanwhile, McGaughey's phone rang incessantly as reporters called from all over the country. It was all starting, the hoopla and the pressure, the steady talk of the Triple Crown. "I don't mind it too much," he said, smiling but unconvincing. "This is the position I've dreamed of being in all my life."
On March 5, McGaughey's waiting was over. Easy Goer blew away the competition in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, winning by 8¾ lengths. And two weeks later, as if on cue, Lukas shipped Houston to New York and ran him in the seven-furlong Bay Shore at Aqueduct. Houston turned in the performance of his young career, winning by 10½ lengths. The racing community was aflame with talk of a Louisville showdown on the order of Affirmed-Alydar.
The script looked perfect. On April 8, Easy Goer and Houston both raced again. In the Gotham at Aqueduct, Easy Goer broke Secretariat's stakes record of 1:33⅖ winning by 13 lengths and certifying his position as Derby favorite. Now it was left to Houston to consolidate the Great Duel. In California, where the temperature hit the high 90's, Houston broke from the gate in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Santa Anita Derby as the 9-10 favorite. He never fired, and finished a badly beaten fifth, 17 lengths behind the winner, Sunday Silence. Tracksiders shook their heads in disbelief. "That just wasn't Houston out there," Lukas said. "The heat really bothered him. Ever since we left those cold temperatures in New York, he's just been sweating in his stall."
Once again, he was the mystery horse. But a few days after Houston's defeat. Lukas was acting as if the race had never happened. "He's just terrific." he exclaimed. "He snapped right back after that race. I'm putting him on a plane to Churchill Downs April 19th, and I'll run him in the Derby Trial. I'm telling people not to tear up their Future Book tickets yet. I think he's a giant threat in the Kentucky Derby."
Two weeks before D day, Easy Goer was sent out at Aqueduct for his last prep race, the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Wood Memorial. The New York Racing Association practically had to issue subpoenas to get five horses to run against him. Still, as McGaughey watched his horse being saddled, the pressure and the worry were etched on his face. He followed Easy Goer and jockey Pat Day up the ramp and onto the racetrack—something he had rarely done before—scrutinizing the colt's every movement.
Easy Goer won it easily, hitting the wire three lengths ahead of the field. An obviously relieved McGaughey said, "I'm so glad this is over with, that we passed this test." Then he smiled and shook his head in wonder. "I'm in awe of this whole thing," he said.
Fifteen minutes before Houston's final prep race, the one-mile Derby Trial last Saturday, Lukas was in agony. The problem was not his horse, but his back, which was killing him. He sat on a folding chair at the far end of the saddling stalls at Churchill Downs. "It hurts like hell," he said. "They tell me it can be fixed with surgery, but I'm doing something more important right now." When the horses were led into the paddock, Lukas got to his feet and gingerly made his way over to saddle Houston. Despite his pain, Lukas followed his colt all the way over to the racetrack. Failure today would hurt him a lot worse than his back.
When the six horses broke from the gate, Houston lay second and stayed there over a fast half mile. At the six-furlong mark he took the lead and kept it, finishing five lengths ahead of the competition despite a slow final quarter. The time was an unspectacular 1:36⅕ but that was good enough for Lukas. "It was a damn sure important race for us," he said. "We've got one over the track now. I think we're going to have something to say about the next race."
The next race, of course, is the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby, and Houston's victory in the Trial put him back in the spotlight, even if still under the shadow of Easy Goer. After many months of dueling from a distance, the two colts will finally meet on the same track. "This is not a mythical championship voted on by the people of the press." said Lukas, as he stood beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs. "It's a street fight on the racetrack. When they turn for home at the quarter pole on Saturday, it doesn't matter who the fans like, or who's the favorite, or who's got the money riding on him. The horses will decide it."