Compared with the standards they have established through years of winning, trainers Wayne Lukas and Charlie Whittingham are not having exceptional seasons. Both can turn things around this weekend, Whittingham at Santa Anita and Lukas at Keeneland.
Whittingham will start the top two horses in his barn, with Golden Pheasant running today in the $100,000 Koester Handicap and Flawlessly expected to be a heavy favorite Sunday in the $125,000 Las Palmas Handicap.
Lukas' Twilight Agenda, coming back from a 3 1/2-month layoff, will run in the Koester, and Mountain Cat is expected to be the odds-on choice in Sunday's $200,000 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Besides the purse, Mountain Cat can earn a $1-million bonus with a victory.
Lukas is headed for his 10th consecutive national training title and has passed the $7.4-million mark in purses. But he might fall short of the $10-million mark for the first time since 1984.
Whittingham is the last trainer other than Lukas to finish first on the money list, taking titles in 1981-82. This year, however, the 79-year-old Hall of Famer will be hard-pressed to reach the $3-million mark in purses, which he has done since 1980.
While Lukas is counting on Twilight Agenda and Mountain Cat for the seven-race, $10-million Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park two weeks from today, both of Whittingham's horses are headed in other directions. Golden Pheasant, winner of the last year's Japan Cup, is expected to run in that $2.9-million race in Tokyo next month and Flawlessly will remain at Santa Anita, to run in the $400,000 Yellow Ribbon on Nov. 8.
In last year's Yellow Ribbon, Flawlessly ran second, two lengths back of Kostroma. That's the only defeat the 4-year-old daughter of Affirmed has suffered in eight starts for Whittingham. She had won only three of eight races in New York, where a pulmonary bleeding condition hurt her chances in a state that prohibits medication.
Flawlessly has since beaten Kostroma three times in a row. Kostroma's trainer, Gary Jones, hopes to get another shot in this year's Yellow Ribbon, and the winner might be voted the Eclipse Award for best female on grass.
Flawlessly finished second in last year's vote, which went to Miss Alleged, the winner over males in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Miss Alleged, a French mare, then was sent to Whittingham in California, where she won last December's Hollywood Turf Cup. This year, however, she was winless in three starts and recently was retired because of a leg injury.
Kostroma's handlers thought they were chasing Flawlessly to Arlington International late this summer. The 6-year-old mare won the Beverly D, but Flawlessly skipped the race because of a fever she caught at Del Mar.
Had Kostroma run in the Las Palmas, a stake she won a year ago, she and Flawlessly would have been equally weighted at 124 pounds. As it is, Flawlessly will carry 124 pounds, eight to 10 pounds more than her seven opponents. This is the field, in post-position order, for the 1 1/8-mile race: Guislaine, Campagnarde, Super Staff, Flawlessly, Visible Gold, Re Toss, Vijaya and Elegance. Whittingham also trains Campagnarde, who is winless in six starts this year.
Only three 2-year-olds will challenge Mountain Cat at Keeneland. "Those three guys (trainers) and the insurance company (that underwrote the $1-million bonus) are the only ones who want to see us lose," Lukas said.
One of Mountain Cat's rivals will be Saw Mill, who was beaten by a neck by the Storm Cat colt in the Alysheba Stakes at Turfway Park on Sept. 26. The Turfway race was the third stake in the four-race Kentucky series that has a $1-million bonus if a horse sweeps. Mountain Cat has already clinched a $250,000 bonus by winning three of the races.
It's been a rocky year for Allen Paulson, the owner-breeder who won two Breeders' Cup races last year at Churchill Downs with Arazi and Opening Verse.
First, Paulson brought Arazi back to the United States from France for the Kentucky Derby, and instead of delivering an encore in Louisville, the colt finished eighth at 9-10 odds.
Then Paulson fired his principal American trainer, Dick Lundy, a dismissal that was followed by a lawsuit charging Lundy with double-dealing in the buying and selling of horses.
Also, Dinard, who had given Paulson a victory in the Santa Anita Derby in 1991, has been prevented from making a comeback because of injuries.
But now, some of Paulson's horses might be coming around. Arazi, back in France, is sharp again, and trainer Francois Boutin is considering both the Breeders' Cup Mile, a grass race, and the Classic on dirt at Gulfstream on Oct. 31.