LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Based on the number of times he has watched the Kentucky Derby from the best possible angle, Wayne Lukas ought to be the man to see about handicapping the race.
Lukas, who has started at least one horse in the Derby every year since 1981 and 22 horses overall, isn't bashful about tooting his own horn, but he takes no credit as a soothsayer for this race.
"This is a difficult race to figure out before it's run, and many times you still can't figure it out after it's run," Lukas said. "You look at that Derby chart the day after the race and you say to yourself, 'How could this have happened?' "
With the qualifier that he's still no Derby expert, Lukas waded into an assessment of the 15 horses who are expected to run Saturday.
"This is my four-horse (exacta) box," he said. "Tabasco Cat, Brocco, Holy Bull and Strodes Creek."
Tabasco Cat, who is Lukas' horse, is no exaggeration. He was third, behind Brocco and Blumin Affair, in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This year, he won the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, and two solid efforts, a victory in the San Rafael Stakes and a second to Brocco in the Santa Anita Derby against a tough California aggregation of 3-year-olds, established him as a Kentucky Derby contender.
"I'm throwing out a few horses--Valiant Nature, Blumin Affair--because they haven't won this year," Lukas said. "They're good horses, but I have trouble seeing a horse winning this race without any wins as a 3-year-old."
The first seven years Lukas competed in the Derby, he started 12 horses, and the best finish, a third in 1981 with his first starter, came from Partez, one of the weakest colts he has sent to Churchill Downs. Winning Colors, the filly, gave Lukas a Derby victory in 1988, and since then, with nine more starters, the best he has done was Dance Floor's third-place finish in 1992. The only trainer to saddle more Derby horses than Lukas has been H.J. Thompson, who took 24 shots in the 1920s and 1930s, winning with Behave Yourself, Bubbling Over, Burgoo
King and Brokers Tip.
There's an extraordinary link between Winning Colors and Tabasco Cat and Lukas' 36-year-old son, Jeff. The younger Lukas did much of the behind-the-scenes work in developing Winning Colors, and his father was
quick to credit him in the flush of victory that day. Then last December, Tabasco Cat, a strong-willed colt, ran over Jeff outside the Lukas barn at Santa Anita, sending him to the hospital with near-fatal brain injuries.
Jeff Lukas emerged from a coma, overcame pneumonia and is now recuperating at his home near Santa Anita. The prospects are good that his memory will improve and vision from his badly damaged right eye will increase. Jeff Lukas will watch the Derby on television with a small group of friends at his home.
Jeff Lukas was at the track, isolated from the crowd, when Tabasco Cat lost by three-quarters of a length to Brocco in the Santa Anita Derby a month ago.
"Santa Anita's people did a great job accommodating him that day," Wayne Lukas said. "But there was never any thought of bringing him to the (Kentucky) Derby. He would have to be exposed to all the people (the crowd is estimated at 130,000), and it would turn into a zoo. Then, if the horse won, there'd be a barrage for Jeff to deal with. What we'd like to do, if it works out, is have him back here as a spectator for the Breeders' Cup in the fall."
Tabasco Cat requires extra care and alertness around the barn. When the son of Storm Cat is led to a grazing area not far from the barn, Wayne Lukas and another handler control him with lead shanks from both sides.
Tabasco Cat kicked in the direction of a reporter as he made his way to graze Wednesday morning.
"It took me all spring to teach him to get the press," Lukas said. "I want you to know that he does that on cue."
There's a certain amount of kidding on the square to that. After a 10-year run as the nation's leading trainer in purses, Lukas' touch lost much of its magic and his personal finances suffered.
He hasn't won a major race since 1991. When Union City, who raced for Tabasco Cat's owner, William T. Young, broke down and was destroyed in the Preakness last year, much blame was dropped at Lukas' door, and since then he has been stingy with interviews with reporters he thinks have wronged him.
The injury to Jeff Lukas came when the barn was trying to stage a comeback. "I miss him a lot," Wayne Lukas, 58, said. "We won together and we lost together. When you work that many hours side by side, it's a void.
"We had talked for four or five years before the accident about Jeff going out on his own. It's a good thing that he hadn't.
"If there's anything positive that can come out of the accident, it's that Jeff didn't have his own horses, who would have been with other trainers by now.
"He can come back at his own pace, without any pressure. He could take two years, or more, if that's what it takes."