The sound of pari-mutuel tickets being torn, crumpled and otherwise mutilated after the eighth race at Belmont Park last Saturday was accompanied by the angry baying of bettors. The fans were barking—yes, barking—at the big dark colt named Houston as he was led down the track after finishing second in the $113,200 Tom Fool Stakes.
Second? A second-place finish doesn't ordinarily elicit such venom, but this was no ordinary horse. The handsome 3-year-old had been sent off by the Belmont crowd as the prohibitive 3-5 favorite, and he had lost. "That horse ain't even worth $50,000," yelled one angry fan as trainer Jeff Lukas and jockey Angel Cordero Jr. walked past.
You remember Houston. He's the colt that trainer D. Wayne Lukas, father of Jeff, paid $2.9 million for two years ago at the Keeneland summer sales in Lexington, Ky. Lukas took one look at him and knew that this well-bred son of Seattle Slew was the best horse in the sale. "This horse is perfect," Lukas would say. "This is the best horse I've ever trained." Strong words from a man who has been the nation's leading trainer in three of the last four years.
Lukas gave Houston the kid-glove treatment. He wasn't going to rush this colt; there was too much hope and money riding on him. When the horse made his 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes in March, he won by 10½ lengths, confirming his stature as a Triple Crown contender. But when Lukas tried to stretch him out in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Houston finished eighth and sixth, respectively.
Over the next two months the colt was rested and freshened. Houston had proved he could run short, so Lukas decided to start him back in the seven-furlong Tom Fool Stakes. Was Lukas changing Houston's job description from classic distance runner to sprinter? Not necessarily. The day before the Tom Fool, Jeff Lukas said, "He's going to sprint tomorrow, and then we'll decide what to do with him. We can go in a lot of different directions. He didn't get the distances in the spring, but we don't think he's just a pure sprinter."
In other words, D. Wayne Lukas didn't pay $2.9 million for a sprinter. Nobody pays that kind of money for a thoroughbred sprinter. A trainer looking to buy pure speed out of a sales ring would never bid more than $1 million, tops. While there's plenty of money to be won in the shorter races, the million-dollar purses are mostly reserved for the distance races. Furthermore, sprinters don't command high prices either in the sales ring or at stud. No cash, no cachet.
In the Tom Fool, Houston went straight to the lead and kept it for six furlongs. Then, just inside the eighth pole, he seemed to run out of steam. Though Cordero went to the whip, hitting him eight times in the drive to the wire, Sewickley, a respectable allowance horse, blew by him to win by three lengths. "He didn't get tired," Cordero said afterward. "He was ready. He just got outrun by a better horse today."
So where does Houston go from here? When asked, Jeff Lukas lost his customary composure and vented his disappointment. "You damn people," he railed at reporters. "You all come over here at once and you want all the answers to all the questions and the race hasn't even been over two minutes. I have no idea where we'll race him next, and I don't know when we'll decide."
Don't write Houston off yet. The Tom Fool was his first start in almost two months, and he could still come up a winner. An Eclipse Award in the sprint division, which is pretty much open right now, wouldn't be a bad consolation prize. Hope is the grease that keeps the wheels turning in the racing game. So where was D. Wayne while Jeff was taking the heat for losing at Belmont? He was at the yearling sales in Lexington, looking for the perfect horse.