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As Usual, Odds Are Against Lukas

April 29, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky` — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He may have bailed out on California racing, but it's still like old times for trainer Wayne Lukas at the Kentucky Derby. Lukas will put two longshots in the starting gate when the 129th Derby is run Saturday, which is just the way he likes it. Lukas is most dangerous at Churchill Downs when he has the least chance.

Referring to Empire Maker, who could be even money or less on Saturday, Lukas said, "[Trainer Bobby Frankel] is on a great roll, but he can't mail it in."

Lukas will try to beat Empire Maker with Scrimshaw and Ten Cents A Shine, both lightly raced colts whose chances of running in the Derby were slim only a few weeks ago.

Scrimshaw, trounced in stakes races at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, underwent throat surgery for a breathing problem and earned his way to Louisville with a three-length win in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19.

If Lukas and the Lexington are familiar, they should be. Four years ago, Lukas took Charismatic, who had run for a $62,500 claiming price two months before, and won the Keeneland stake. Then two weeks later, he wheeled Charismatic back in the Derby, and he won there, too, at 31-1. Last year, Lukas won the Lexington with Proud Citizen and finished second with him in the Derby.

Running Ten Cents A Shine, who has been beaten by more than 80 lengths in his last three starts, seems pure folly, but the colt's owner, Kenneth Ramsey, was writing school essays about the Derby 50 years ago, and Lukas would never cold-water a man with $30,000 in entry and starting fees in his pocket.

Lukas has won four Derbies, the first with the nearly favored filly Winning Colors, and then with Thunder Gulch and Grindstone, who preceded Charismatic at respective odds of 24-1 and 5-1.

Charismatic, who also won the Preakness before suffering a career-ending leg injury as he finished third in the Belmont, was owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, who bought Scrimshaw as an unraced 2-year-old for $550,000. The dark bay colt is a son of Gulch, who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint for Lukas and also sired Thunder Gulch. The Lewises, from Newport Beach, went home with the roses for the first time when Silver Charm, trained by Bob Baffert, won the Derby in 1997.

"Wayne's been telling Rolf Emerson [the Lexington veterinarian who did Scrimshaw's surgery] that he's going to make him famous by winning the Derby," Bob Lewis said.

Lukas, who trains about 30 horses for the Lewises, won't be running them in California until the next Santa Anita meet rolls around. He's skipping the Hollywood Park and Del Mar meets for the first time since he moved from quarter horses to thoroughbreds in 1978.

Lukas says exorbitant workers' compensation costs have forced him out of California.

"Economically, I can't justify running there anymore," Lukas said. "The [premium] rates are running about 38% of payroll costs right now, and they'll be going even higher later in the year. I'm talking about an expense of $45,000 a month. That kind of thing is not only killing racing in California, it's seriously hurting a lot of other businesses as well."

Lukas has a string of horses at Churchill Downs as well as Belmont Park in New York, and he'll also be well represented at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago this summer.

Jerry Hollendorfer, like Lukas one of the leading trainers in the country, raced divisions of horses in Northern California and at Arlington a few years ago. His workers' comp costs ran about $3,000 a month in Illinois, more than $30,000 in California.

First place in the Derby, worth more than $800,000 with an estimated 10% going to the trainer, can pay for a lot of bills.

After winning his Derbies with seasoned riders -- Gary Stevens on Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch, Jerry Bailey on Grindstone, and Chris Antley on Charismatic -- Lukas has named Cornelio Velasquez, a 34-year-old Florida-based rider, to ride Scrimshaw. Edgar Prado, who rode Scrimshaw to his Lexington Stakes victory, is already committed to ride another horse, Peace Rules, in the Derby. Calvin Borel, 37, will ride Ten Cents A Shine. Neither jockey has ridden his horse before. Velasquez, 10th on the national money list with $3 million in purses, has never ridden in a Derby. Borel's best Derby finish with three mounts is 12th.

"I may have waited until late to get a jockey for Scrimshaw, but I wasn't desperate," Lukas said. "There were 11 guys on the list. [Velasquez] doesn't have the statistics of a Jerry Bailey or a Pat Day in this race, but he won't be overwhelmed by the hoopla. He's got ice water in his veins. He's a good fit for this colt, and he's a good finisher with a horse."

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