03/25/2016 3:06PM

Hovdey: Jeff Lukas a story of triumph and tragedy


I spoke with Jeff Lukas exactly once in the past 10 years, in February 2008, from his home in Atoka, Okla. The occasion was the death of Winning Colors, the Hall of Fame filly who won the 1988 Kentucky Derby.

“She was always a big, tall, long-striding filly – an extremely well-structured individual,” Lukas said. “The thing about her was just controlling her. She was not the kind that would easily settle down. We had to keep her from doing too much because she tried to put a lot into her training that wasn’t necessary.”

With his father, Wayne, managing their national stable, Jeff did most of the day-to-day training of Winning Colors that season. He knew her every twitch and whinny.

“We always took her out in the first set every day when it was quieter, with not as much traffic,” Jeff said. “And as far as her exercise rider, that was also an important consideration. When we left Santa Anita for Louisville, she got tough training at Churchill, to the point a change needed to be made. So, for the last 10 days before the Derby, Dallas Stewart galloped her. He could gallop a tough horse, and he got her to settle down. That was a key factor to her being able to run her race at Churchill. Then on the day of the Derby, it was a matter of getting her to the paddock, getting the saddle on, and then getting her to the track quietly.”

Those of us who covered the events of late 1993, when Lukas suffered a potentially catastrophic head injury while attempting to stop a runaway colt named Tabasco Cat at their Santa Anita barn, were amazed that 15 years later, Lukas was alive, let alone sharing insights about something from what must have seemed like another world.

Eyewitnesses never will forget the terrifying sound of Jeff’s head bouncing off the hardpan of the stable road, of Wayne running to his son’s side and feeling desperately for a pulse, of the ominous sight of the medevac helicopter whisking him across town to Huntington Memorial Hospital, followed by the induced coma, the family’s bedside vigil, and the dire warnings of permanent brain damage, or worse.

His recovery was miraculous, his rehab arduous. Lukas even was able to make a quiet visit to the races four months later for the Santa Anita Derby. Watching in privacy with his wife, Linda, from a grassy knoll overlooking the far turn, Jeff was pleased enough when his father’s colt finished a good second to the champion Brocco. And it mattered not that the colt was Tabasco Cat, because Lukas had no memory of what happened on that December morning.

Brain trauma can be a capricious foe. By no stretch of the imagination did Jeff Lukas return to the Jeff Lukas everyone knew as the demanding, perfectionist extension of his father’s training philosophy, imbued with a self-confidence that belied his years. What happened was a shock to racing’s system, but the fact that Jeff Lukas took it upon himself to stop a wild runaway surprised no one.

If his reflexive act of self-sacrifice saved Tabasco Cat from an injury of his own, who knows? The colt was ineffective in the Kentucky Derby but then bounced back two weeks later to beat Derby winner Go for Gin in the Preakness. Wayne Lukas stood on the Pimlico winner’s stand that day and declared, “No matter how you look at it, this race belongs to Jeff.”

In the end, the injury left Jeff Lukas a gentler soul who tried in vain to return to a racetrack career. That was not meant to be, but eventually he found a measure of peace in a small town working in the bank of a family friend. Somehow, he was left with those still-vivid memories of Winning Colors, as well as the ability to savor the true lights of his life – his son and daughter – who lived with their mother back in California.

“Brady just signed a letter of intent for a full-ride scholarship to the Air Force Academy,” Lukas said then. “And Kelly turns 15 on Friday. Everything they’ve accomplished, you try to tell people, but you just can’t come up with the words to describe the way it gets to you.”

If nothing else, the death of Jeff Lukas this week at the age of 58 should remind one and all that handling the Thoroughbred racehorse is a dangerous job for anyone in the barn, the boss included. Larry Jones, Ron McAnally, John Shirreffs, and even Wayne Lukas have suffered serious injuries, while Del Carroll, one of the leading trainers of the 1970s, paid the ultimate price with his life.

The price paid by Jeff Lukas was stern enough. And yet to hear him tell it, there was not a trace of bitterness or regret. There was life before December 1993, and after.

“Getting out of the house, working full time again, it feels great,” Lukas said in 2008. “I turned 5-0 last year, and it was no problem. After all I’ve been through, I’m glad to be having birthdays.”