LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The last of the great ladies' men stood in front of Barn 44 and made excuses for his presence at the 115th Kentucky Derby.
Nobody ever had more success with the fairer sex than Darrell Wayne Lukas, not Casanova, Rubirosa, Rudolph Valentino, Clark Gable, any Barrymore or stage-door Johnny.
It's not looks, although he's got those dark eyes, all his hair, straight teeth, nice smile. He could be a tango instructor, movie star, even a European playboy or race car driver. He just knows something about handling females nobody else seems to get the hang of. They even go out and make him rich. And famous.
Gigolo? Party animal? No. Good conversationalist? No. His girls can't talk. Smooth dresser? His boots are muddy.
But his girls will do anything for him. One of them even won the Kentucky Derby. If you don't think that's remarkable, she was only the third of her sex ever to do that.
So, what is this dashing, debonair Don Juan doing back here in Kentucky without a lady friend on his arm? What's D. Wayne doing hanging out with the guys? Is he getting sick of the night life? No, his girls never kept him up late, or dragged him to the opera or boring society balls.
They just took him to the race track. They were more like Charley's angels. Wayne just brought out the best in them. And vice versa. Some of their names read like a Who's Who of American Racing--Terlingua, Landaluce, Lady's Secret, Althea, Life's Magic, Winning Colors. Lukas' harems are horses.
Which is probably why Lukas is wandering around the barns and paddock of Churchill Downs this week with an 8-1 shot on his leash.
He's the wrong sex. He's no lady. Nobody's quite sure if Houston is going to run for Wayne. He's not as well-behaved as Wayne's angels. He's displayed some headstrong tendencies, like finishing next to last in a Derby.
Actually, one of Wayne's more prominent fillies did that to him once, finishing next to last in the Kentucky Derby, no less--and the only horse she beat stopped running in the backstretch.
Still, bringing Houston to the Kentucky Derby is an audacious move even for Wayne Lukas. A horse who finishes 16 lengths behind the winner in his most important race--and as an odds-on favorite, at that--does not usually win a trip to Kentucky.
The problem is, the Kentucky Derby to Wayne Lukas is what Moby Dick was to Captain Ahab, Jean Valjean to Javert, the windmill to Don Quixote--an obsession.
Prevailing opinion is that Lukas' horse has as much right to be here as a burro. He's not ready, he's not fast enough, he's not tough enough, he's being rushed, he's being overextended. Apart from that, he's qualified.
To a man, the hardboots expect him to get swallowed up by the field somewhere near the head of the stretch. They only hope the other horses don't eat him.
Wayne Lukas has never cared much what the Kentucky racing Establishment thinks of him or his horses. Kentucky is a place where they think you don't know anything about a horse unless your granddaddy put you on your first one or your family came west with Daniel Boone.
Horses, they will tell you, are complicated creatures, like women. It takes a lifetime to understand them, and just when you think you do, they will make a fool out of you.
They told him fillies don't win in the spring of the year. So Wayne brought Althea to the '84 Derby, and by gum, they were right. Althea was 19th, beaten by 30 lengths. She took a lot of money with her, going off as the $2.80-$1 favorite.
The Derby had been pretty much a hoodoo for Lukas from his start. In 1980, he had probably the best 3-year-old in the country, Codex, who won the Preakness. But Lukas forgot to nominate him for the Derby.
He didn't make that mistake again. He made others. He sent no fewer than 12 horses to the Kentucky Derby in the next seven years, becoming known as Wayne Loses.
Partez managed a third in 1981, but Muttering fell all over himself in 1982. In 1983, Lukas started three horses--Marfa, Balboa Native and Total Departure. They finished fifth, ninth and last.
In 1984, Life's Magic was eighth and Althea next to last. In 1985, Tank's Prospect was seventh. In 1986, Badger Land was fifth. In 1987, On The Line was 10th, War was 13th and Capote was nowhere to be seen, eased up ahead only of a horse who stopped to bleed in the backstretch.
Ordinary introspection should have prompted Lukas to give Kentucky a wider berth than a forest fire, but Wayne was never one to play the chalk or cut his losses. He was back the next year with yet another no-no, Winning Colors, an indifferently bred, homely roan and a filly at that.
The hardboots were helpless with laughter. Didn't Lukas know a roan had \o7 never \f7 won the Kentucky Derby? And only two fillies had? In 113 years?
Lukas ignored the odds, and 1988 was a time when both longshots came in. A roan and a filly. Lukas had finally bagged his private white whale.