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BILL DWYRE

D. Wayne Lukas is not into plastics

Trainer won't enter a horse in the Breeders' Cup because of Santa Anita's synthetic track. He also points several areas in which the struggling sport needs to make changes to improve its status.

November 05, 2009|Bill Dwyre

Significantly, at an occasion perfect for keynoting the current state of horse racing, one person ideally suited to do just that is not at the Breeders' Cup.

By choice.

Legendary trainer Wayne Lukas and his outstanding 2-year-old, Dublin, will not be at Santa Anita this weekend for the 26th Breeders' Cup, even though you will probably be hearing more about Dublin come Triple Crown season next spring.

"I didn't want to subject him to the unexpecteds of synthetic tracks," Lukas says.

Clearly, there is trouble, right here in River City, trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P. But that trouble is certainly not limited to those who refer sarcastically to California's racing surfaces as "plastic."

Santa Anita is playing host to this wealthy extravaganza of racing for the second straight year. It features $25.5 million in purses over 14 races. By most accounts, Breeders' Cup officials have tweaked things to improve ticket pricing and fan accessibility and look for an even bigger smash hit Friday and Saturday.

But no amount of bells and whistles will instantly rescue horse racing from an extended downturn in revenue and popularity, the latter certainly preceding the former. And there are few better equipped to address this than Lukas.

If there is an elder statesman in horse racing, it is Lukas, who at 74 is still a couple of Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup wins from even pondering the concept of retirement. He has won 13 Triple Crown races, tied for the most ever, and 18 Breeders' Cup races, the most. He has trained three horses of the year, has four Eclipse awards for trainer of the year, was the first trainer to reach $100 million in winnings and is in the Hall of Fame of both thoroughbred and quarter horse racing.

"I'm at the age where I say what I feel," Lukas says, "and I don't give a damn what anybody else thinks about that."

He says the synthetic tracks "make average horses look sensational and sensational horses look average." He says that racing is in the gambling business and that the synthetic tracks are yet another difficult element for people trying to handicap a race.

"We need to understand, when a person makes a bet, he becomes our financial partner," Lukas says. "We need to protect him as well as we can so he becomes our financial partner again, 20 minutes later, for the next race."

He says that not enough stress, or promotion, is put on the fact that making a race bet involves some skill, some decision. "It's not just the spin of a slot machine," he says.

He says the Triple Crown needs fixing, that the time between races and the distances contested make the marquee event of racing more like a five-event or six-event series.

"You have to get them ready in tough races, just to make enough money to qualify," he says. "This isn't just the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, anymore. It's the Arkansas Derby, the Florida Derby, the Santa Anita Derby and then off to the Triple Crown.

"And what happens? Horses are like any other athletes. They get hurt when they get tired. And our sport cannot afford any more breakdowns on national TV."

He says that those in the sport who resist changes to the Triple Crown hide behind tradition and that the entire industry needs to "get under one blanket" to avoid all the individual agendas of owners, trainers and tracks.

Lukas says that a national uniformity of medication rules is essential, and points to the recent sanctions against California trainer Jeff Mullins for a violation at Aqueduct in New York that bans him from training there for six months, but not in California. Mullins has an entry, In The Slips, for Friday's Juvenile Fillies Turf, but she is currently one of two horses listed as also eligible, awaiting scratches of other horses. "People look at that," Lukas says, "and say, 'I'm depending on him to give me a fair shake?' "

Lukas also says he has seen too many corporate types being promoted to run tracks. He says the best team to run a track would be a threesome that includes a sharp businessman with political connections, a retired horseman and a Las Vegas sharpie who knows how to market a sport.

He says he will be watching closely Friday and Saturday and will be rooting for many of his friends, especially recent Hall of Fame inductee Bob Baffert and his 2-year-old colt, Lookin At Lucky, the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the $2-million Juvenile.

"If he does well," Lukas says, "you can tell Bob we have a nice little track out here in Kentucky and a nice little race for him to come to on the first Saturday in May. Bob and I in the same race again, that would be good for horse racing."

So would a Wayne Lukas sighting in the saddling area of the paddock this weekend. But that, sadly, is not going to happen.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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