Defying The Odds

As trainer Jeff Lukas recovers from near-fatal injuries, the horse that trampled him, Tabasco Cat, has emerged as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby
March 21, 1994

His right hand gripping the end of the banister to steady himself, Jeff Lukas turned slowly beneath the bright lights of the chandelier that hangs in the foyer of his Southern California home. It was early evening on March 6, and Lukas's wife, Linda, was holding an impromptu session in memory reinforcement.

"What horse is that above the fireplace?" Linda asked, pointing to a large color photograph displayed there. "Criminal Type," the 36-year-old horse trainer answered correctly, naming the 1990 Horse of the Year, whom he had helped to train with his more celebrated father, D. Wayne Lukas. "There he's turning for home in the Hollywood Gold Cup."

Now Linda touched a smaller photo off the foyer: "Remember who these three horses are?" Moving a bit stiffly, Jeff stepped forward and peered closely at the picture. Linda tapped the glass over the gray horse in the middle.

"That's Lady's Secret," said Jeff, one of America's most respected young horsemen, identifying the doughty mare whom he had campaigned to Horse of the Year in 1986. To her right stood a tall, elegant-looking bay. "That's Life's Magic," Jeff said, naming yet another champion in whose career he had played a major role. Finally, there was the coppery chestnut with the white star, standing on Lady's Secret's left. "That's Alabama Nana," said Jeff, recalling another stakes winner whom he had once escorted to the racing wars.

That Jeffrey Wayne Lukas is still alive today, that he is able to recognize with his one good eye the major totems of his past, comes as close to the realm of miracle as medical science ever gets. "Two-and-a-half months ago he was in a coma—I thought he was going to die—and now he is walking and talking," Linda says. "It's amazing. He is improving every day. He is remembering more every day. We are so lucky. He's going to get better. A hundred percent. I just know it."

Early on the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 15, outside the Lukas barn in the stable area at Santa Anita Park, a thousand-pound chestnut colt named Tabasco Cat—the fastest of the Lukas 2-year-olds and the barn's most promising 1994 Kentucky Derby prospect—broke free from his handler and began bounding riderless, like a flushed deer, between the sheds. That most dread of backstretch cries went up: "Loose horse!"

Sitting nearby on his pony, 53-year-old trainer Walter Greenman was watching the scene unfold when he saw something that he had never seen a loose horse do before. "Most horses, when you step out to stop them, will pull themselves up in front of you," says Greenman. "But when Jeff stepped out, this horse never hesitated. The horse buried his head, kind of dipped his shoulder like a fullback, and ran over him. It was as though he knew exactly what he was doing. And then the horse walked over him real fast."

The horse slammed Lukas flat on the ground, and the sound of the back of his head striking the hard dirt was like that of a baseball cracking off a bat. Trainer Mike Smith, one of Lukas's closest friends, arrived moments later and sensed instantly how grave the injury was. "His eyes were open, but his stare was blank," says Smith, "He was incoherent. He moaned and moaned." Lukas's condition deteriorated so quickly at the racetrack that paramedics decided not to move him by ambulance. Instead, he was lifted by chopper to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where he lay for days in a coma, near death, and where he slowly, ever so gradually, emerged from the deepest sleep to dimmest consciousness, his eyelids fluttering half-open on Christmas Day; and where, looking thin and pale (his weight ultimately dropped from 220 to 178), he whispered his very first word, "Linda," or Jan. 13. Ten days later he took four halting steps with a walker and began rejoining the world of his friends and family particularly that of his wife and two children, Brady, 4, and Kelly, 1.

"It was awful, like a bad dream," Linda says.

By the time William Caton, a Pasadena neurosurgeon, saw Lukas in the hospital the morning of the accident, the trainer was comatose. "His whole brain was swollen," Caton says, "primarily his frontal and temporal lobes. Fortunately, those areas he bruised have the least amount of neurological function of all the areas in the brain, but they do involve his memory, his degree of alertness and his personality. He was extremely grave." To relieve the growing intracranial pressure (ICP), Caton put him on mannitol—"to decrease the brain swelling." he says—and placed Lukas on hyperventilation, which decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood; this has the effect of reducing the blood flow to the brain, thus lowering the pressure there. The next day Caton performed a ventriculostomy, drilling a thumbnail-sized hole in the top of Lukas's skull and inserting a device deep into his brain to monitor the ICP and a tube "to drain cerebrospinal fluid when the pressure went up."

Despite these efforts Lukas's brain continued to swell, and on Friday, Dec. 17, he nearly died. Indeed, Caton was meeting with Linda, D. Wayne and Jeff's mother, Janet Blank, in a hospital conference room when a nurse opened the door and said, "Dr. Caton, we really need to see you—immediately." Recalls Linda, "Our hearts just sank." Caton literally ran the 30 feet to Jeff's room, where one monitor registered the ICP at nearly six times higher than normal. "He was in a very deep coma and was close to death," Caton says. "He was about as sick as you can be and still be alive." If Linda had not considered the possibility of her husband's dying, she experienced a "reality check" when a nurse approached her and asked, "Do you want a priest to give your husband a blessing?"

The Lukases do not belong to a church, so Linda called Smith's wife, Shauna. Mike is an active member of the Mormon church. Shauna rang Mike's beeper while he was waiting to saddle a horse at Hollywood Park. When Mike called, Shauna told him. "Linda needs a priest. She wants you to come at once." Smith deputized another trainer to saddle his horse and dashed back to Huntington, where he joined a Mormon missionary, whom he had called to give Lukas a "blessing of health" at his bedside.

So the vigil began. "It was the longest day of anybody's life," says one of Jeff's best friends, Don McWhirter. "Wayne looked like he hadn't slept in three days. That afternoon, I heard Linda cry, 'It's just not fair. I want him to see Brady play baseball. I want him to see Kelly go to a prom. It's just not fair, dammit! He's such a good guy.' " Twice that day Lukas's ICP rose so high that Caton feared the tremendous pressure on the brain stem would cut off circulation to that vital center and leave him brain-dead. But Caton and others on the staff were able—through hyperventilation, medication and drainage—to relieve the pressure. That day Caton also put Lukas into a deeper coma by using pentobarbital to decrease brain activity—a procedure that Caton says is "used only in extremely life-threatening situations."

Caton was bucking the odds and using every means to do it. "Statistically," he says, "the majority of patients will die with the kind of problems Jeff had—with pressures that high."

Lukas remained in critical condition for days after that, but he never again came as close to death as he had on that Friday afternoon. By Christmas Eve his ICP had fallen and stabilized to the point that Caton could tell Linda, "He's not going to die from his brain injury...." But Jeff also battled pneumonia well into January. His emergence from the coma came gradually: "Between Christmas and New Year he was opening his eyes," Linda says, consulting a log. "He wasn't moving his eyes. It was just a gaze. By New Year's Day, he was squeezing our hands." Everyone kept reassuring him: "Today is January 1. You got hit by a horse. You had a brain injury. You're waking up. Don't be scared. You're going to be all right. It's going to take awhile."

It took a lot less time than anyone had imagined—the sitting up, the walking, the talking—and on March 2, just 46 days after the accident, Lukas walked on his own steam into Casa Colina, a rehab center in Pomona, about 10 minutes from his Glendora home.

Tabasco Cat, meanwhile, was putting on a show of his own. On Jan. 22, the day before Jeff took those first four halting steps, the culprit in this whole affair raced to a one-length victory in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows Racetrack, near San Francisco. And on March 6, the day of Lukas's second visit home (he had been to the house for Kelly's first birthday, on Feb. 20), D. Wayne saddled the Cat for the $150,000 San Rafael Stakes at one mile, a major prep for the April 9 Santa Anita Derby. After engaging in fiery head-and-head duels, first with Fly'n J. Bryan and then Powis Castle, Tabasco Cat drew off to win by a length under jockey Pat Day. In the winner's circle after the race, D. Wayne Lukas said, referring to the Kentucky Derby, "Nothing would make me happier than standing there in the winner's circle with this horse on May 7. And there are a lot of reasons." One of them, of course, is his son. "Nobody around the barn has brought up what this horse did to Jeff," D. Wayne said. "It was just a case of a frightened horse running off. Because of what happened, we're careful now in bathing and unbridling him. But we don't want to put any kind of yoke around him for the rest of his career."

A few hours later Jeff Lukas sat in the family room at home and watched a videotape replay of the colt's victory. He was silent as Tabasco Cat raced through a half mile in 45[4/5] and continued to shovel on more coal. "That was good, considering he was pressed every step of the way," Jeff said. "It's always good to see a horse run like that, especially with the Triple Crown coming up. It's good to see him win."

"That's the horse that ran over you," someone said.

"That's what they say," Jeff said.

Lukas has no recollection of the accident—and never will have, Caton says—and the ensuing weeks in the hospital form a permanent hole in his memory. "I don't really remember what happened," he said.

"You almost died," Linda said.

"That's what everyone says," he said. "It didn't feel that way. Those are the facts."

Lukas has other gaps in his long-and short-term memory. When asked the fate of Landaluce, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly who died of a terrible virus in 1982, Jeff paused and said, "She was just retired, I think."

Jeff Lukas owns a reputation as one of the nation's most gifted and conscientious horse trainers. His father has always said that it was really Jeff who trained the filly Winning Colors to her 1988 Kentucky Derby victory, though D. Wayne was her trainer of record—and Caton expects Jeff to one day resume his place in the game. "He is months ahead of schedule," Caton says. "I think he has an excellent chance of being his old self. I say that based on where his injury was, his very rapid response and his day-to-day improvement. A brain-injury patient can continue to improve for 12 to 24 months. Here's a guy who was comatose in December, who now, in March, is able to take care of himself. And his memory is better every day." And now there is hope that his sight, at one time feared lost due to a bruised optic nerve, will return to his damaged right eye.

Though months away from coming back to training, Jeff is up on the bit more every day. "I want my life back," he says. "I want to get the morning schedule back to normal. The morning work. Seeing everything happen, in person. I miss the routine. I miss getting involved. I'd like to go back to work as soon as possible. It's as simple as that."

Linda is in no rush. She is talking now of taking Jeff and the kids to the races in August at Saratoga, with its casual, bucolic charms and rhythms, to reacquaint him slowly with the horses and the game. For now she savors what she has and almost lost. "I feel so grateful," she says. "I got my husband back. The children have their father back. We have a chance to do everything we've always wanted to do. We have a second chance!"

ILLUSTRATIONJULIAN ALLEN PHOTOPETER READ MILLERLast week a thinner and more fragile-looking Lukas recuperated at his trophy-filled home. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWhile a therapist helped Lukas with his balance at rehab, Tabasco Cat won the San Rafael. PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERJeff, who trained for D. Wayne (above left), is now spending his days with Linda, Brady and Kelly. PHOTOROB BROWN[See caption above.]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)