06/06/2002 12:00AM

Baffert and Lukas: A league of their own


NEW YORK - For the fourth time in six years, a horse is bidding for the Triple Crown, racing's most celebrated and elusive prize. Yet the most enduring aspect of recent Triple Crown history may reside in human rather than equine achievement. The training feats of D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert are among the most astounding accomplishments in racing history.

From Tabasco Cat's 1994 Preakness through War Emblem's Preakness three weeks ago, Lukas or Baffert trainees have won 18 of the last 25 Triple Crown races. That's 72 percent of all Triple Crown races for Lukas and Baffert, 28 percent for the rest of the world combined.

Lukas has won 10 of those 25 races - three Derbies, three Preaknesses, and four Belmonts - with seven different horses: Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Timber Country, Grindstone, Editor's Note, Charismatic, and Commendable. Baffert has three Derbies, four Preaknesses, and one Belmont, courtesy of four horses who have won two-thirds of the Crown: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, and now War Emblem. Lukas or Baffert horses have won six of the last eight Derbies, seven of the last eight Preaknesses, and five of the last eight Belmonts.

These numbers are simply staggering. The only Triple Crown training achievement in the same league is Woody Stephens's five straight Belmont victories from 1982 through 1986. Like Stephens's five very different Belmont winners, Lukas and Baffert's horses defy categorization, suggesting a true breadth of horsemanship. They have won with front-runners and stretch-runners, bluebloods and ill-breds, favorites and longshots. Of course they have more prospects to start with than the average trainer, but they haven't started out with 72 percent of the talent pool. They have won with horses from a full range of backgrounds - homebreds, auction yearlings, 2-year-old purchases, and private acquisitions.

The contention that Baffert somehow unfairly or improperly bought his way into this year's Crown bid is thoroughly absurd. This is an industry based on buying and selling horses, and dozens of other owners had the resources and opportunity to buy War Emblem. Baffert was willing to gamble on a horse whose previous owner thought he should "stay the hell out of the Derby," and whose bone chips scared off other buyers. Baffert bristles at the suggestion that he bought a fixer-upper.

"This horse is really, really sound," Baffert said. "I've never injected his joints, and I've never even looked at an X-ray on him."

Despite having won 16 of the previous 23 Triple Crown races coming into this year, Baffert and Lukas were the ninth and 12th betting choices in the Derby. Surely this was a year when both were taking a desperate rather than a serious shot. Their colts ran the best races of their lives and anyone boneheaded enough to play a Baffert-Lukas exacta was rewarded at the rate of $1,300.80 for $2.

Lukas and Baffert seem to be playing the Triple Crown game on an entirely different, private level from everyone else. Both have been hounded by suspicions that they have discovered magical potions, but nothing untoward has been been confirmed. They're not about to reveal their secrets, and their uncanny success drives other trainers to drink and to wonder whether their colleagues have made long-term arrangements with Satan.

What keeps the two of them entertaining rather than unbearable is that they drive no one crazier than each other. There is little good cheer amid their knocks and needling. Lukas, who is 17 years older, staked out this territory first and has to feel Baffert is an upstart knockoff. Baffert can counter he started faster and is gaining quickly. It would probably kill them to admit their similarities, from their Quarter Horse roots and dark-shaded appearance to their genuine enjoyment of the game.

About their only acknowledged bond is their rocky relationship with the racing press, though there's been some role-reversal over time. A few years ago, Baffert was a media darling and an iconoclast who was sticking the Preakness trophy on his head and imitating Austin Powers, while Lukas was perceived as comparatively stuffy and combative. Now it's Baffert who seems quicker to anger and Lukas seems mellower and more statesmanlike about almost everything - except Baffert. In the last five weeks alone, Lukas has opined to national audiences that Baffert "is just plain lucky," and "has been on scholarship his whole life." His take on Baffert's winning the Derby with a horse purchased three weeks before the race: "To hell with that."

About the only thing in the sport neither one of them has done is win a Triple Crown. Both want it badly, and both would hate to see the other get there first.

When Lukas had his lone shot at a Triple Crown with Charismatic in 1999, it was the Baffert-trained filly Silverbulletday who went after him from the start. This year, Lukas's Proud Citizen has twice tried to stalk and catch War Emblem without success. Would anyone be astonished to see a change of tactics Saturday that might set the table for someone other than War Emblem? Perhaps the only way to get anyone else into a Triple Crown winner's circle these days is for the two of them to beat each other.