LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Things are getting a little tense around Barn 39 at Churchill Downs.
So tense, in fact, that trainer Wayne Lukas, who will send a three-horse entry to the post in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, has brought in reinforcements.
Relations between Lukas and reporters--never warm to begin with--have sunk even lower in recent weeks.
Enter Bob Knight, sometime basketball coach and, for the rest of this week at least, Lukas' media-relations adviser.
"He doesn't know anything about horses, you've got to understand that," Lukas said. "But he's very good at recognizing horses' asses."
That was but one salvo on a day when Lukas, with help from Knight, fired back at the critics who have second-guessed and criticized the trainer's every move in preparing Capote, last year's 2-year-old champion and Eclipse Award winner, for Saturday's 113th Derby.
Long before Knight arrived at Barn 39, where Lukas' three Derby hopefuls, Capote, War and On the Line, are stabled, the morning had gotten off to a bad start.
It began as soon as Lukas, who claims not to read newspapers, picked up Thursday morning's Louisville Courier-Journal. There, bannered across the top of the sports section's front page was a story detailing his 0-for-9 record in Derby starts.
The author, Dave Koerner, later was brave--or foolhardy--enough to show up at Lukas' barn, at which point Lukas let fly with a stream of obscenities, ordering Koerner away from the barn and threatening to put Koerner's article to novel use.
There was an earlier incident in which Lukas' son and assistant trainer, Jeff, got into a fistfight with a Churchill Downs trainer, the cause being nothing more earth-shaking than an improperly parked car outside the Lukas barn.
Even Lukas had to try to downplay that one.
"It's that time of the year," he said. "It was a misunderstanding. I think both parties probably regret it. You always do in those situations. (Jeff) was looking out for the interests of the barn and I think tensions are a little edgy. . . . Don King was by, he says the rematches are always better.
"The car was in the wash area and Jeff asked (the other trainer) to move it and they had a misunderstanding. It happens. I don't think either one of them is very proud of it."
All of this--in a Derby week that has generally been without controversy--was enough to bring a crowd of reporters down to the barn, and Lukas, after calming down, tried to patch up relations while at the same time getting in a few barbs at his critics.
Knight wasn't much help, as the following exchange at the end of the impromptu press conference showed:
Lukas: I told them you don't know much about racing and I don't know much about basketball.
Knight: Then you've spent about an hour talking to a hell of a lot of people who don't know much about either racing or basketball.
It was that kind of morning. Even Knight's attempt to establish his racing credentials--he became friends with Lukas through a mutual friend, basketball consultant Pete Newell--managed to strike a sour note, at least with the female sportswriters.
"My first experience with a race track was years ago when Pete (Newell) took me to Hollywood Park," Knight said. "Pete's telling me about how all the coaches have always been great at the race track, so we get up early in the morning and he takes out the Racing Form and explains everything to me.
"So the second race, I dunno what the hell horse we picked, No. 6, let's say. So Pete says, 'Come on, we've got to go to the window and I'll show you all you've got to do.'
"So we're standing there--and I love to go to Hollywood Park and just watch the people, it's just amazing--and there's a girl standing in front of Pete and she's got on a halter (top). Big boobs, and she's got on a halter.
"So we get to the window and I know we're betting the 6 horse and then Pete puts all we have on the 2 horse--because this girl with the halter and the big boobs had bet the 2 horse.
"We go back to the table and I said, 'I've seen all the evidence I need of the science of the race track.' "
To Lukas, though, racing is a science of sorts. He sees it less as a sport and more as a business. Dollars and cents and "the bottom line" creep into his conversations frequently.
It was in this vein that he responded to questions about his never having finished better than third with the nine horses he has entered in the last six Derbies.
"It doesn't bug me (not to have won the race)," he said. "We train a lot of horses. If on the first Saturday in May one of those horses isn't successful, all we can do is keep trying every year to come back.
"But my contention is that we will stand on our record. We're already coming off a world-record year last year and we're running about 48% ahead of that. I think last year on Derby day we had something like $2.8 million (in purses won) and we're over $5 million right this minute. We had 13 or 14 stakes (winners at this time) last year and we're up to 29 stakes.