At 4 p.m. on May 1, about an hour and a half before post time of the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby, trainer D. Wayne Lukas strode down the dirt floor of his half-darkened shed at Churchill Downs and pulled himself up in front of the only stall in which a light was shining. Turning back, Lukas called to the two turf writers he had been talking to at the end of the barn. "Come on down here," said Lukas, the leading trainer in earnings in the U.S. for the last 10 years. "I want to give you guys a treat."
The two writers swept down the shed to the stall. "Just look at this colt!" said Lukas, holding out a hand and introducing the guests to his Derby horse, Union City, with an almost fatherly sense of wonder and pride, his grin as broad as the keyboard on a baby grand. "This horse is 5 to 1 in the pre-Derby betting," said Lukas. "Let me tell you something: If the 135,000 people over there today could be standing where you are right now, he'd be 3 to 2."
That is precisely how Union City looked on the far turn at Churchill Downs during the race, when he loomed up five-wide and full of run, like a favorite about to raise hell. But then he disappeared as though the ground beneath his feet had opened up and swallowed him. Union City galloped home wearily in 15th place, some 18 lengths behind victorious Sea Hero.
Two weeks later, on the day of the Preakness Stakes, Lukas took no writers to the shed at Pimlico to show off the colt. In fact, Union City's scant training regimen—he had no serious workouts between the Derby and the Preakness—had raised suspicions that something might be wrong with the colt. Those suspicions were later heightened when one horseman at Pimlico reported having seen Union City standing in ice twice a day in the days before the Preakness.
If Union City's performance at the Derby had left Lukas "mystified," as he described it, what happened to the horse in the Preakness brought him to despair. Union City was racing near the leaders down the backside when he shattered the sesamoid bones in his right front ankle, hobbled horribly and limped to a stop. "Lukas's face turned absolutely white," says New York Post turf writer Jenny Kellner, who was standing near him. Lukas and Robert Copelan, Union City's veterinarian, jumped in a racetrack car and rushed to the colt's side, but there was nothing anyone could do to save him.
Shortly after Union City had been destroyed by lethal injection, several reporters encountered Lukas in the stable area at Pimlico. When one of them began wondering aloud if the colt may not have been 100% going into the race, Lukas exploded. "That's ridiculous!" he said. "I try to be honest with you people, and I am now. I do my job. I get up every morning at three a.m. That's more than I can say for the——who are second-guessing me."
Indeed, when asked later by SI about the prerace icing of Union City, Lukas erupted again: "That is so much——. The horse was physically fine. Periodically we ice horses. What we did is cool him out in cold-water bandages each day. It is a common practice." Many trainers routinely ice horses to keep their legs cold and tight, but they also do it to relieve soreness and inflammation.
Over the next several days Lukas's decision to run Union City in the Preakness—and the health of his entire operation—came under attack. Headlines asked DID HE HAVE TO DIE? (New York Post), TWIST OF FATE OR BAD GAMBLE? (The Washington Post) and LUKAS MUST FACE QUESTION: DID AMBITION RULE JUDGMENT? (Lexington Herald-Leader). By the next week the 57-year-old Lukas was walking around the stable area at New York's Belmont Park looking like the oldest man on earth. "I feel that I was unfairly criticized," said Lukas. "It was like a pack of wolves on a wounded deer."
On May 19, the Wednesday after the Preakness, Lukas was looking so despondent that those who care about him grew alarmed. That day, one of his former assistants, Kiaran McLaughlin, saw Lukas at Belmont and then called one of Lukas's best friends in the racing business, Kentucky bloodstock agent Paul Paternostro. "Wayne's isolated," McLaughlin told Paternostro. "He looks real lonely. Nobody's talking to him. He's got his head down and his baseball cap pulled over his eyes. Even the way he walks. I just think he needs a call."
The conversation between McLaughlin and Paternostro was the beginning of a crisis intervention engineered by Lukas's closest friends, including his son and chief assistant, Jeff. After talking to McLaughlin, Paternostro called Lee Eaton, another Kentucky bloodstock agent, from whom Lukas had bought many of his best yearlings, and Bob French, a Texas oilman for whom Lukas had purchased and trained some of the fastest runners of their day. Eaton and French, in turn, called others. By the time the lines stopped humming, 10 people had dropped everything to wing off to California to tell Lukas how much he meant to them and to help him out of whatever troubles he was having.
Soon after McLaughlin saw Lukas at Belmont, Lukas flew to California, and on the morning of May 24, Jeff Lukas and trainer Clyde Rice, Wayne's oldest friend, talked Wayne into leaving his barn at Santa Anita early under the pretext that Rice wanted to see Jeff's new home in Glendora. Rice and Jeff and the eight travelers had gathered over dinner the night before at the Holiday Inn in Monrovia, a mile from Santa Anita, and had agreed to hold the intervention at Jeff's place. So it was, at 9:30 a.m. on the 24th that Wayne stepped into his son's living room and confronted a circle of faces, some of which he hadn't seen in months.
"What are you doing here?" Lukas asked.
French came forward and put his arms around him. "Wayne, we love you," said French. "We're here to support you."
Darrell Wayne Lukas broke down and wept.
While Lukas's despondency over the death of Union City—and the attacks upon him that the tragedy engendered—were the reasons for the intervention, those who gathered that morning were aware that their friend was also under pressure to square debits with credits throughout his empire. Lukas has not been winning as much as he once did. And win he surely did, as no one else ever has.
From 1983, when the horses he trained earned $4.27 million, through 1988, when his far-flung charges, including Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors, won $17.8 million, Lukas set an earnings record each year. Since the Breeders' Cup series began in 1984, horses wearing Lukas's white bridles have won 10 Cup races, six more than the second-leading trainer, and since he started training, in 1978, he has had 11 Eclipse champions, including two Horses of the Year—Lady's Secret in 1986 and Criminal Type in '90.
No one has ever done it like Lukas. He has a national vision of the sport. At one time or another he has had thriving barns at every major track from California to Kentucky to New York. French and Mel Hatley, an Oklahoma businessman, backed him heavily in the early days, but Lukas's buying power did not reach its zenith until he and Gene Klein, the former majority owner of the San Diego Chargers, met in 1982. Klein's finances were soon to be in a highly liquid state; he would sell his interest in the Chargers for more than $50 million in '84. By then Lukas had demonstrated a keen eye for yearling horseflesh—1982 juvenile filly champion Landaluce, who died of a mysterious viral infection in November of that year, was but one of many major winners he had plucked from sales—and in Klein he met the man who would become the busiest American shopper of them all.
With Klein, French, Hatley and others behind him, Lukas bought just about any horse he wanted. "When I went to the sales, I was answerable only to my conscience and good judgment," says Lukas. "I bought the horse that looked like an athlete, that looked like a racehorse."
Because none of his big owners were breeders, the pedigrees did not really matter. The only question was, Does Lukas like 'em? According to the Jockey Club's Equine Line computer service, between 1985 and '90 Lukas bought 337 yearlings for a total of $104.6 million. At the end of a sale he would sit down and divide the horses among his owners, taking a 5% commission for himself and frequently investing his own money to keep a piece of his purchases. In 1988, the year Lukas set the money-winning record, 26 of the 38 horses in his New York barn alone won graded stakes races.
His empire began to unravel when an ailing Klein dispersed his holdings in 1989. He died the next year, and Lukas failed to find anyone with enough chutzpah and millions to take his place. The 1985 Tax Reform Act had eliminated any tax advantage to owning racehorses, making a tough business even tougher. When the economy went into free-fall in the late '80s, more owners left the business. "We used to have one owner who'd buy 10 horses," says trainer David Cross. "Now we have 10 owners who buy one horse. When Gene Klein left, that was the end of Lukas as we knew him."
Lukas's primary owner today, retired Kentucky industrialist William T. Young, is a breeder seeking to win the classics, so a yearling's pedigree is crucial. Lukas's carte-blanche era has become a memory, and with it all those modestly bred bargains who could fly. Indeed, according to Equine Line, Lukas bought only 34 yearlings for $8.6 million in 1991, his smallest numbers since 1984, and last year he purchased just 18 for $3 million. His three current strings of racehorses—at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park—are no longer major factors at those tracks.
He has not won a Breeders' Cup race since 1989, and remarkably, he has not won a Grade I stakes since October 1991. Lukas led the earnings list last year with $9.8 million, about the sum he needs to break even, but he'll fall far short of that in 1993. Through May 26, Lukas had won only one minor stakes race—the Grey Lag Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct—and his horses had earned only $1.6 million, placing him ninth in earnings. Among the more than 130 horses Lukas has in training, nary a one is a recognizable name.
"We hit a couple of bad classes," Lukas says. "We've taken some hits and had some bad luck. It isn't as if we just caved in. We're still Number One."
For three years rumors have been rampant in the racing community that Lukas was in difficult financial straits. He has repeatedly denied them. He clearly, however, lost a fortune in the summer of 1991, when Calumet Farm filed for bankruptcy. His claims against the farm range from $411.33 for training to $2.6 million for, among other things, breeding seasons to Alydar and Criminal Type, and money Lukas and his son say they are owed for Badger Land, a horse they sold to Calumet. In another claim, for $2.1 million, Lukas, French and Barry Beal, co-owners of Capote, the 2-year-old champion in 1986, say they sold Capote to Calumet but have never been paid. "Do you know many trainers that could take that big a hit and keep going?" says Lukas.
The Calumet bankruptcy came at a bad time for Lukas. Not only was Klein gone, but it occurred just a year after the financial blow Lukas had suffered when Grand Canyon—"Probably the best male horse I ever had," he says—developed laminitis, a fatal hoof disease, and had to be destroyed at the start of his 3-year-old year. Says Lukas: "He won $1 million as a 2-year-old and would have probably won $4 or $5 million more, and I owned 35 percent of him. You didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out he was going to change my whole financial picture."
Lukas had faced hard times before. In 1986, when he was rising to the summit of the sport, he took out $4 million in loans from a bank in Oklahoma City, securing them with quarter horses he owned with Jeff and a longtime friend and financial adviser, David Burrage. When the bank went under, Lukas and Burrage had to come up with $1.8 million to satisfy the FDIC, so they went public with a stock issue, telling investors that Lukas would run the company and train and race thoroughbreds as well as quarter horses. Although the enterprise, called Mid-America Racing Stable, Inc., failed, the stock offering got Lukas out of his financial hole. Proceeds from the stock sale allowed him to pay off the $1.8 million to the FDIC and to repay $700,000 that he had lent to the quarter-horse partnership. During the three years the company operated, Lukas paid himself $600,000 in commissions and fees. As for the dozens of angry investors who had lost more than $4 million in Mid-America Racing, Lukas settled with them, refunding a total of $250,000.
Lukas has since made millions by sticking to training thoroughbreds. However, while former assistants say he has always made the payroll, they also say that a few years ago he began falling behind in his payments to some racetrack vendors and to some assistants who were to receive commissions from purses. Lukas has also had difficulty collecting training bills from delinquent owners, though, says Burrage, "he has worked the past-due bills owed to him down from more than $500,000 to less than $200,000."
Lukas will not reveal the size of his debt, but he says he has been cutting back on horses and employees. "He is current with the bank," says Burrage. "His program must be to reduce his debt and liabilities. Everyone will be paid."
It was against this somber financial backdrop that Union City came to Baltimore. Lukas insisted nothing was wrong with his horse, despite the speculation that had swirled all week. There is a widely held perception among horsemen that Lukas is hard on horses. "He dances close to the fire," says one veteran trainer.
When Lukas brought his 1980 Preakness winner, Codex, to the Belmont Stakes, one observer noted that the colt appeared to be sore during training in the days leading up to the race. Codex finished seventh and never raced again. Five years later Lukas brought Preakness winner Tank's Prospect to the Belmont amid murmurs that the horse was unsound. Tank's Prospect broke down during the race and was retired to stud.
Of course there is nothing new about sore or infirm horses going to the post. While his fans held their breath, Forego repeatedly raced with an ankle that looked like a gourd, and Swaps was sore when he stepped into the gate against Nashua in their 1955 match race, won by Nashua. After the outstanding filly Go For Wand broke down on national television in the 1990 Breeders' Cup, racing grew particularly sensitive to the subject of horses having to be destroyed. With much speculation over Union City's prerace condition both before and after the Preakness, some suggested that a financially strapped Lukas might have been pressing by sending him to the track.
"I didn't press," says Lukas. "I'm paid to get horses ready for major stakes that I think I can win. When I can't [get them ready], as in the case of Farma Way, I don't [run them]." Lukas scratched Farma Way from the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1991, forfeiting the owners' $360,000 entry fee, when the colt injured his ankle.
Many horsemen regard Lukas as the best promoter the sport has ever known, a man who revolutionized the business, and they have rallied to his side. "I've never been so disillusioned as I have been in reading and hearing about Lukas," says Cross. "It's the most unjust thing."
In a letter to the Daily Racing Form, Union City's owner, William Young, wrote, "The decision to run in the Preakness was mine, not Wayne Lukas'. This decision was made after consultation with my staff, independent veterinarians and, of course, Wayne Lukas. I don't fully understand the controversy surrounding this tragic loss as we would never intentionally run an unsound horse."
Despite all the support, Lukas was wincing under the week-long barrage when Rice and Jeff led him into Jeff's living room on May 24. The session lasted seven hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It began with Lukas's friends standing up, one by one, and telling stories about what he had meant to them. Lukas talked about his life, about where he had started out and how he had gotten where he was, and about his troubles. "It became an open forum," he says. "They pointed out things I had done wrong."
The topics ranged from his relations with the press to his tendency of late to withdraw from friends. "Your main ability is with horses and people," Eaton told him. "There is no better motivator. You need to get your mind off everything but training horses and communicating with your owners."
The group discussed the idea that Lukas turn his financial affairs over to someone else. "No way!" Lukas said repeatedly. But his friends kept urging him in that direction. He finally agreed. A longtime friend, R.T. Williams, said to him, "Wayne, let's hear an 'I will' statement."
"I will turn my finances over to someone else," Lukas said and then added, "with the understanding that all my creditors are paid in full, all my vendors."
That was the final promise they elicited from Lukas. The 11 men stood and held hands while Eaton prayed. Lukas says it was one of the most vivid experiences of his life. The next day, as he sat in his office in Arcadia and mused aloud about the previous week, Lukas looked more relaxed than he had in years. But he had difficulty talking about that long encounter with his friends at Jeff's house.
"Why does someone like Lee Eaton drop everything, leave his family on vacation, and fly out here at his expense to tell me that he loves me?" said Lukas quietly. "I don't know if a guy deserves that, the love and support that was shown in that room. For hours! I wasn't prepared for the outpouring of support. It was a beautiful thing."