He cut his hand while tightening the girth on his horse Tabasco Cat, and now, as D. Wayne Lukas rode the clubhouse escalator to the reserved boxes to watch last Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore, he was trying to stanch the bleeding and keep it from staining his dark-blue suit. As he dabbed at his injured finger, the 58-year-old trainer talked about the vagaries of racing luck.
Lukas, who led the nation in purse earnings every year from 1983 through '92, had lately been mired in the worst slump of his career. He hadn't won a Grade I stakes race since October 1991. Yet here he was at Pimlico, clinging to the hope that Tabasco Cat, who had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, could somehow find a way to overcome Derby winner Go for Gin and eight other contenders in the 1[3/16]-mile Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. "It's a funny thing about these classic races," he said to a companion. "We all analyze them, but they almost never turn out the way we think they will."
Lukas had arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday, only three days before the race, without his customary swagger of years past. After all, it was a year ago that his horse Union City broke a leg during the Preakness and had to be destroyed. After that race Lukas was visibly shaken. And that was just the beginning of what Lukas will always remember as the Year from Hell.
In the wake of the Preakness some turf writers accused him of knowingly running a lame horse. His critics said he was desperate to make a big score because his business empire was collapsing. Lukas eventually admitted that he had indeed suffered financial setbacks (SI, June 7, 1993), but he went on the counterattack against those who intimated that he cared more about his finances than he did about his horses.
Lukas was just beginning to regroup when he suffered an even cruder blow. On the morning of Dec. 15, 1993, Lukas was standing outside his office at Santa Anita when he heard a lot of commotion and then a sickening thud. He dashed over to find that Tabasco Cat had gotten loose after a workout and had run over Lukas's 36-year-old son, Jeff, his chief assistant. As he bent over Jeff's crumpled body, Wayne initially thought his son was dead. "He never moved or moaned," Wayne says.
When the paramedics arrived, the first thought was to take Jeff to a nearby hospital by ambulance. But one of the paramedics insisted it would be better to call in a helicopter. "It landed right next to the barn," Wayne says. "If they'd used the ambulance, we would have lost him. As it was, we barely saved him."
With all that as preamble, it is not surprising that Wayne Lukas was subdued while he stood in his Pimlico box and watched Tabasco Cat warm up for the Preakness. More than once he remarked that he was pleased to see his normally high-strung horse acting so calm. "For him, that's good," Lukas said. "Very good." While the horses were loaded into the starting gate, the ABC cameras focused on Nick Zito, trainer of Go for Gin. Nobody paid much attention to Lukas.
When the gate sprang open and the horses came pounding down the stretch and past the grandstand for the first time, Lukas said, "I like the way he looks. He's just where he should be." Tabasco Cat was fourth, saving ground on the rail, and that's more or less where jockey Pat Day kept him on the backstretch and into the turn for home.
It was at that point that Go for Gin opened a one-length lead over Polar Expedition, with Tabasco Cat another length back. "We've got to move now because we can't let him get away from us," Lukas said.
As if connected to Lukas by mental telepathy, Day moved his colt. When the leaders swung out of the turn, Tabasco Cat was second, with dead aim on the front-running Go for Gin. "Come on, Pat," Lukas said.
An eighth of a mile from the wire, as the roar from the crowd of 86,343 swelled, Tabasco Cat hooked Go for Gin, who dug in and fought back. For several strides they tested each other's resolve. Seventy yards from the finish, Tabasco Cat put a nose in front and began to pull away. "Bring him on home!" Lukas shouted.
At the wire Tabasco Cat, the 3.6-1 third choice in the pari-mutuel wagering, behind Go for Gin and Blumin Affair, had drawn off for a ¾-length victory in 1:56[2/5] over a dull Pimlico strip. The gritty Go for Gin hung on for second, six lengths ahead of Concern.
When Tabasco Cat crossed the wire, Lukas didn't shed a tear. He didn't mention Jeff or the toughest year of his life. He just smiled. "How about that?" he said, whacking a friend on the back as he headed for the winner's circle.
In the giddy aftermath of what may be remembered as the most important win of his career, Lukas went out of his way to heap praise on Tabasco Cat's owners—William T. Young and David Reynolds—and on Day. And he marveled at how Tabasco Cat got a perfect trip. "It was an absolute script, just the way I wanted it to be," he said.
In his postrace interviews Lukas declined the opportunity to lash out at his media critics. "That was last year, and this is now," he said over and over. He also spoke guardedly about Jeff, who watched the race on TV at home in California before taking his children to a carnival.
"I talked with Jeff before the race," Lukas said. "He said, 'Dad, you've done the best you can do.' We've tried to keep that thing with Jeff separate and keep it in perspective. We're just trying to get our stable back to normal and have Jeff back working in it." Happily, Jeff's recovery has gone better than anyone expected, and there has even been talk of his returning to a limited schedule late this summer.
Lukas won't rush him, however. "I've changed my perspective some," he said. "You can't take anything for granted. You just get up each day and hope all the people you care about are still there."
"This game is like a big wheel," said Day, who also rode Tank's Prospect to victory for Lukas in the 1985 Preakness. "What goes around comes around. Mr. Lukas was in a bit of a slump, so to speak, but he remained upbeat. It was just a matter of time before he got back to where he was."
An hour after the race, as Lukas stood in the gathering twilight at Pimlico, a traffic helicopter flew low over the barn from which Tabasco Cat was being led out to graze. "I hate that noise," said Lukas, his smile momentarily becoming a frown. "Every time I hear it, I think about what happened to Jeff, and it makes me a little sick."
His listener nodded and looked at the trainer's cut finger. He couldn't help but note that in more ways than one, the bleeding finally had stopped for D. Wayne Lukas.