LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If it's Kentucky Derby week, Wayne Lukas must be at Barn 44 at Churchill Downs.
And that's where he could be found on a chilly, gusty Saturday morning, preparing two and perhaps three 3-year-olds for another run at the Derby, a race Lukas hasn't missed since his first appearance in 1981.
Lukas has won only one Derby, with the filly Winning Colors in 1988, despite running 19 horses in the Triple Crown race, three times starting a three-horse entry and twice running a two-horse coupling. Churchill Downs only pays to fourth place for the Derby, and the only other Lukas runner to earn a paycheck has been Partez, the trainer's first Derby horse, who finished third.
Lukas hasn't run a favorite in the race since he made Derby history in 1984 with the filly entry of Althea and Life's Magic. Althea, who had already beaten colts, winning the Arkansas Derby, led the race for three-quarters of a mile, then stopped badly and finished 19th in a 20-horse field. Life's Magic, who went on to win two Eclipse Awards while running against her own sex, finished eighth.
Lukas won't have the favorite when the 118th Derby is run Saturday, and he is uncharacteristically reserved about his chances.
"Dance Floor," he says, "will be a well-tuned horse on Derby day, but whether he can get the distance (1 1/4 miles) remains to be seen. We hope to run Al Sabin, because he's not chopped liver, he can be a nice horse on a given day, and because he's owned by Henryk (de Kwiatkowski), who became a state hero when he bought Calumet Farm."
De Kwiatkowski is credited with saving the bankrupt operation by buying it for $17 million.
The other Lukas candidate is Hickman Creek, who would give the Derby another front-runner after the loss of two, the ailing California horses Bertrando and Treekster. A decision will not be made on Hickman Creek until later in the week.
Arazi, scheduled to arrive from France today, probably will be the odds-on favorite at post time Saturday, running on the track where he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in breath-taking fashion in November.
"Without Arazi, this would be a vanilla Derby," Lukas said. "If he wasn't running, all the rest of us would be 10-1. I don't think for one second that he won't be 100% for the race, but there's still a gray area about him. He's got to get here, he's got to acclimate himself, and he's got to go through quarantine. In the Breeders' Cup, he was like a sports car with its accelerator stuck. The hype is good, because this might not be a great crop of 3-year-olds, and the sport has got to hitch its wagon to something. But after all the hype, we're still going to go out there and try to beat him."
Dance Floor, owned by the rap star Hammer and his family, won two stakes as a 2-year-old, and his victory in the Brown & Williamson at Churchill Downs on Nov. 30--four weeks after he was sixth behind Arazi--makes him eligible for a $1-million bonus that could be earned by winning the Derby.
Dance Floor completed 1991 by running second to A.P. Indy in the Hollywood Futurity, but this year his reputation has suffered. After winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, he quit running in the last two furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby and finished second to Technology. Dance Floor bled slightly during the race, but despite being treated with Lasix for the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 11, he again found 1 1/8 miles too much to handle and wound up fourth.
Al Sabin, a son of Alydar and Sabin, the Lyphard mare, is doubtful for the Derby because only $15,000 of his $132,477 in earnings has come in graded races. The Derby is limited to 20 horses and if more than 20 want to run, preference is given to the horses with the most money from top races.
Al Sabin is still in New York, while Lukas waits to see what happens with the money list. Al Sabin won a minor 1 1/8-mile stake at Aqueduct a week ago in a time that was matched about a half-hour later by Devil His Due in winning the Wood Memorial.
"We would have carried 126 pounds in the Wood," Lukas said, "and we didn't consider that race a perfect spot for Al Sabin. So we carried 117 in the race we ran in. Maybe we would have won the Wood, considering the time he ran, but we ran him where we did because it was a softer spot."
Had Lukas not been outbid by Japanese businessman Tomonori Tsurumaki at a Keeneland auction two years ago, one of his Derby horses might have been A.P. Indy, the Santa Anita Derby winner who is likely to be the second choice next Saturday.
"Actually, I went about $800,000 more than I wanted to go in bidding for A.P. Indy," Lukas said. "When the Japanese went to $2.9 million (the winning bid), I could tell that they were going to be hanging in there for the long haul. We would have been looking at well over $3 million if I had kept bidding."
After the sale, Lukas asked Noel O'Callaghan, Tsurumaki's adviser, how much his client was prepared to pay for A.P. Indy.