ELMONT, N.Y. — The difficulty of winning the Belmont Stakes is epitomized by trainer Wayne Lukas' early record in the Triple Crown race.
Codex, Lukas' first Belmont starter, won the 1980 Santa Anita Derby, was inadvertently not nominated for the Kentucky Derby and then won the Preakness. As the 8-5 favorite in the Belmont, he finished seventh on a muddy track as Temperence Hill, at 53-1, won.
In 1985, Lukas brought another Preakness winner, Tank's Prospect, to Belmont Park. At 9-2, the colt went lame in the race, with Pat Day pulling him up before the finish.
Winning Colors, Lukas' first Derby winner and third in a roughly run Preakness, went off at 2-1 in the 1988 Belmont and finished last after leading the 1 1/2-mile race for the first four furlongs.
Counting some lesser starters, Lukas was 0 for 7 in the Belmont before finally succeeding last year, winning with Preakness winner Tabasco Cat.
But although he seems to hold all the advantages for the 127th running Saturday, the 59-year-old trainer is not counting on victory.
In Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch and Preakness winner Timber Country, Lukas will saddle the two favorites in the Belmont.
"Because of the distance, which horses have never run before, the Belmont is a gray area," he said. "But I'd have to be ultra, ultra conservative to think we can't win. But we've still got to do it."
There have been 11 Triple Crown champions--none since Affirmed in 1978--but no trainer has ever swept the three races in the same year with different horses, and that achievement seems to mean more to Lukas than winning five consecutive Triple Crown races, which would also set a record.
"I'm surprised that no one has won the three with different horses," he said. "You would have thought that Calumet Farm, with the Joneses [Ben and his son Jimmy] might have done it. You always hear the stories about how they went to the Derby with their strong horse and won the race with another horse. You would have thought that one of those years, the strong horse might have carried them the rest of the way."
Calumet won the Triple Crown with Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.
Just as he did before the Derby, Lukas has been directing more attention to Timber Country than Thunder Gulch. The stablemates were flown here from Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday.
"A mile and a half will be stretching Thunder Gulch to his outer limits," Lukas said Wednesday as he ducked inside the protection of the shed row to avoid the morning rain.
"But if you took this Belmont field one by one and asked which horses have the right to handle the mile and a half, you'd end up with Timber Country and maybe a few others. But if somebody asked you to describe a true Triple Crown horse, you'd describe Timber Country. He's a half-brother to several stakes winners, he's taller than 16 hands [64 inches], and he's got a running style that fits these races."
Still, Timber Country's third-place finish in the Derby extended the champion 2-year-old's losing streak to four and Lukas has recited all of the excuses.
"We kept saying that he was a classic horse," Lukas said, "and he was overdue to become one. Belmont Park should suit him better than the other horse. He's already run one of his best races here. The Champagne was the turning point in his career."
Timber Country, a $500,000 yearling, began his career with two victories at Del Mar, but after a third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity, he ran in the Champagne in early October with no overblown reputation. He wasn't even the favorite, going off at 7-2 before winning by a half-length. What followed a month later was a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs and then an Eclipse Award.
"The situation with Timber Country is a lot better than it was with Tabasco Cat a year ago," Lukas said. "Tabasco Cat was always a handful, and by the time we got him to New York, it was almost impossible to even train him.
"Then on race day, it was 85 degrees. . . . We were lucky to even get him saddled. There was a Dixieland band blaring in a tent behind the paddock, and we had to get them to shut that down. With Timber Country, there's none of that. We'll lead him over there, he won't wash out, and you know he'll be just as calm as can be."
Pat Day, who won the Belmont with Tabasco Cat, is Timber Country's jockey. He won the New York race in 1989 with Easy Goer. Day suspected that he might have been replaced as Timber Country's rider if they hadn't won the Preakness, and Lukas indicated that he was probably right.
"What did Pat say after the Preakness?" Lukas said. "That he only had a contract till the end of the race? I think he knew the speech I gave him before the Preakness even before I gave it. He won't need any speeches Saturday. It's a three-lane deal instead of five lanes. All he has to do is make sure he's not in the slow lane."
Horse Racing Notes
Serena's Song, the Wayne Lukas-trained winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico the day before the Preakness, will face five other 3-year-old fillies Friday in the $200,000 Mother Goose at Belmont Park. Others running in the 1 1/8-mile race are Golden Bri, So Cheerful, Love Tunnel, Ravishing Raven and Forested. Serena's Song, who won by nine lengths at Pimlico after running 16th in the Kentucky Derby, will be ridden by Gary Stevens. "The Derby took nothing out of her," Lukas said. . . . Serena's Song's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, also race an undefeated 2-year-old filly, Miraloma, who's scheduled to run in the Astoria Breeders' Cup Stakes at Belmont on June 21. . . . Lukas is not critical of the few trainers who are running seemingly outclassed horses in the Belmont. "They're probably caught up in the mystique of the race," he said. "This is a race where you usually wind up with a few horses that don't make sense."