LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Surrounded by a roomful of reporters, trainer Wayne Lukas watched on television Saturday as Houston, his maligned 3-year-old colt, recovered from the Santa Anita Derby disaster to win the one-mile Kentucky Derby Trial by five lengths at Churchill Downs.
Before the race, Lukas said he wasn't superstitious, but, still, he sat in the same swivel chair in the track superintendent's office where he watched Winning Colors last year as the filly gave him his first Kentucky Derby win.
In effect, the Trial was little more than a glorified workout for Houston, a colt that cost Lukas $2.9 million as a yearling and then won his first three races before beating only one horse as the heavy favorite in the Santa Anita Derby three weeks ago. Houston defeated five horses of lesser skill in a good time of 1:36 1/5 over a drying-out track that was called muddy most of the day but was listed as good for the Trial.
Houston ran the last quarter-mile in :26 1/5 and did nothing in the stretch to suggest that he will be a serious threat in next Saturday's 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, Houston should be the fourth betting choice, behind the entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring, Santa Anita Derby winner Sunday Silence and Western Playboy.
Belek, who had been undefeated in three starts, finished second, seven lengths ahead of Affirmed's Image. In His Cups ran fourth, Pulverizing was fifth after leading for a half-mile in a speedy time of :44 4/5 and One That Got Away finished last.
Houston, earning $54,502 of the $83,850 purse, paid $3, $2.40 and $2.40. Belek paid $2.60 and $2.60, and Affirmed's Image paid $3.40. The temperature was about 75 degrees, but the humidity reminded Lukas of the Santa Anita Derby, in which Houston wilted in the heat.
Neither Lukas nor jockey Laffit Pincay did flip-flops over Houston's race. Houston went to the track calmly before an opening-day crowd of 24,281. The well-bred son of Seattle Slew and Smart Angle broke well and settled into second place, a couple lengths behind Pulverizing, as the field left the chute for the run down the backstretch.
Houston ranged up on the outside to take the lead away from Pulverizing on the turn and won easily. Pincay did not need to use the whip.
"This will be the best work on the tab," Lukas kiddingly said. "I would have preferred that he run it a little slower, but it's better for a horse to run fluidly than have him go slower.
"I told Laffit to get him off the fence coming through the stretch and he did. The track was a little sticky on the inside. This race was more of a challenge than the other horses he beat. It gives him a race over the (Derby) track, we've got the horse back (from the Santa Anita defeat) and if he bounced back from this, then we'll move on to the Derby.
"Whether he wins the Derby or not, this is a good horse and he'll have a good career. It's a lot of fun to speculate on who is doing what, but the Derby isn't a mythical championship, it's a dogfight on the race track."
Bob French, Lukas' long-time partner from Midland, Tex., who bought a controlling interest in Houston after the trainer got him at a Keeneland auction, was relieved that the colt won.
"The Santa Anita Derby knocked the wind out of us," French said. "This was very nice, it was exactly what we wanted. What happened at Santa Anita really got to us."
Five of the winners of the Trial came back to win the Derby, but none since Tim Tam in 1958, when the race was only seven furlongs. Since 1982, when the Trial was moved from four days before the Derby to a week ahead, no horse has come out of the race to win the Derby. "I just sat with my horse most of the way," Pincay said. "We were just waiting. I wasn't worried about the speed horse (Pulverizing), I wasn't worried about him at all. I'm satisfied with this race."
A couple of weeks ago, the 115th Derby figured to have one of the smaller fields in recent years, but now there's going to be the usual mob. A field of 15 is definite, and if Flying Continental comes from California, there could be 16. Jack Robbins, one of owner Jack Kent Cooke's advisers, said that there's a 60-40 chance that Flying Continental will run.
Besides Easy Goer, Awe Inspiring, Sunday Silence, Western Playboy and Houston, the field should include Dansil, Triple Buck, Faultless Ensign, Hawkster, Clever Trevor, Notation, Majesty's Imp, Irish Actor, Northern Wolf and Wind Splitter.
Majesty's Imp joined the group Saturday, even though he finished fifth last Tuesday in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. His principal owner, Chuck Tanner, managed the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series victory, but he is new to the horse racing business and has never been to the Derby. He can get a better seat with a horse in the race.
Horse Racing Notes
Easy Goer worked quickly Saturday morning, running five furlongs in :59. Although the track was muddy, trainer Shug McGaughey said that it was easier for Easy Goer to grip than it was when he ran second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last November. . . . Sunday Silence worked a mile in 1:39 3/5 and trainer Charlie Whittingham said: "The track was a little tiring and he probably had 125 pounds (exercise rider Steve Bass and a heavy saddle), but he came out of it and wasn't even blowing." . . . Hawkster worked a mile in 1:41 1/5 with Marco Castaneda, who will be his rider in the Derby, in the saddle for the first time. . . . Dansil's owner, John Franks, is considering a jockey change for the Derby, even though Larry Snyder rode the colt to victory in the Arkansas Derby.