09/25/2002 12:00AM

'Know your horse' says Lukas

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ELMONT, N.Y. - A race over the track?

Some horsemen swear by the importance of familiarization in challenging for the Breeders' Cup, now just four weeks away.

But Wayne Lukas, who has saddled 16 winners of Breeders' Cup races for a decisive lead in that department, says that has never been an overriding consideration to him.

"For the Breeders' Cup and for some other important events throughout the year such as the Triple Crown classics, we've done well by shipping in a few days before the race," Lukas said by telephone from California. "We feel that planning ahead is probably the most important aspect, and everything we've done was designed to give us the best chance of winning that day in an intensely competitive situation."

Winning the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic of 1999 with William T. Young's 19-1 Cat Thief has been Lukas's most satisfying experience in the series.

Cat Thief was largely overlooked in the betting, which focused that year on Behrens and General Challenge.

"Know your horse," Lukas said. "It is easy to mislead yourself, but it is very important to have a realistic picture of him: what he can do and can't do. We thought Cat Thief belonged in the race, and it was particularly gratifying to watch him win, standing there with Mr. Young and his grandchildren."

Sometimes there are pleasant surprises, as was the case in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile of 1988, in which Easy Goer was a prohibitive favorite at 3-10. Lukas mapped out a strategy that called for his colt, Is It True, to move sooner than usual. He didn't expect to upset Easy Goer, but that is what happened on a muddy track, which also contributed to the favorite's defeat.

One year later, the shoe was on the other foot as Easy Goer's connections, the Phipps family and trainer Shug McGaughey, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with Rhythm, while Lukas's representative, Grand Canyon, finished second. Lukas was keenly disappointed, feeling Grand Canyon was the best of his generation. The colt seemed to prove the point several weeks later when he sizzled a mile in 1:33 to win the Hollywood Futurity.

Sometimes the same horse can bring both joy and despair. Spain was a case in point. She came up to the Breeders' Cup Distaff at the top of her game in 2000, and won a bitter duel with Surfside, another Lukas trainee.

Spain seemed to train as well for last year's Distaff, but after opening a lead at the furlong pole, was beaten by a head in a dramatic finish by Unbridled Elaine.

None of Lukas's 16 Breeders' Cup winners ever came up to race day any better than Steinlen did for the 1989 Mile. Lukas had him at a keen edge, Jose Santos contributed an outstanding ride, and Steinlen beat a strong international field of turf stars.

There are many ways to the winner's circle, Lukas points out, and some horses do well in Breeders' Cup competition off a fast work a week or 10 days in advance of the race. Personally, he feels that by this time of the year, most Breeders' Cup horses are pretty fit. He prefers to save their energy for the race, and that will summarize his efforts in attempting to win this year's Sprint with Orientate. Orientate might have run his best race ever in Saratoga's Forego Handicap, his last start. Lukas hasn't put any pressure on him since, seeking to have him full of himself on the day it counts the most: Oct. 26, Breeders' Cup Day.