04/30/2004 12:00AM

Lukas and P. Val: Two of the greats


PHOENIX - They say if you hang around long enough you'll see something that surprises you. It might not be something you didn't know, but rather something you knew long ago but forgot. This spring I was smacked on the head with a few of those surprises.

Comeback kids: Over the past 25 years or so, D. Wayne Lukas and Patrick Valenzuela have likely been the two most controversial humans in horse racing. Maybe controversial is the wrong description; lightning rods might be better. But their work the past few weeks reminds us of their greatness as horsemen. I haven't agreed with every move Lukas has made, and I'm not sure I believe Valenzuela should have been given the chance for another comeback. But what I am sure about is talent unsurpassed.

What Lukas did with Azeri is nothing short of breathtaking. Her career was over. Surely Lukas knew what would happen to him if she returned at anything less than her former great self. He would have been skewered. Under his training, Azeri came back even better than she was before.

By the time you read this, Azeri probably will have won another Grade 1, Saturday's Humana Distaff. But even if she didn't, it doesn't matter. Her spot in history is sealed regardless of what happens from here out. Ditto Lukas's.

He changed the game more than any other trainer by operating on multiple fronts. He took shipping for spots to a new level. What Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert do now as the norm was not common when Lukas first stepped on the stage.

Of all his accomplishments, Azeri's Apple Blossom might be Lukas's greatest.

Valenzuela, similarly, draws instant reactions, positive and negative, but know this: It's entirely possible there has never been anyone who sat on a horse who had more raw talent. Think of the abuse his body has taken. Think of the missed time working. It doesn't seem to matter. Even now, at age 41, he returns after being off the racetrack for three months and promptly wins with two of his first three mounts. The minute he set foot back in the jocks' room he was the best rider in there. And the abuse his body has taken makes him older than his years.

I've never seen anyone get as much run from horses at Valenzuela.

Sickness and health: I was given a good lesson last week, which cost me. I was convinced Dimitrova was much the best horse going into last Sunday's Grade 3 Wilshire Handicap at Hollywood Park. I made her the heavy favorite on my Sweep graded handicap, and the public followed suit. She was a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner last year at 3 and figured bigger and better at 4.

So when she faltered to fourth after being perfectly positioned I was perplexed. But I shouldn't have been.

The next time you hear about a horse being sick, remember it. Dimitrova was supposed to make her 2004 debut in the Grade 2 Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita on April 17, a week earlier. However, she came up with some mucus in her lungs in the days prior to that race, and she wasn't even entered. Trainer Neil Drysdale gave her an extra week, and it helped to have a race like the Wilshire available as an alternative.

But being sick takes it out of you. Even after you're over feeling sick your energy level often isn't back to normal. I'm convinced that's what happened to Dimitrova. Because of her slight illness she missed some time and was missing some energy. The Wilshire should instead turn out to be an ideal stepping-stone, and as long as her health is good, I'm convinced she'll be a huge threat in the Grade 1 Gamely at Hollywood later this month.

Bob Baffert II: Back in the early 1990's a Quarter Horse trainer from Los Alamitos began making inroads in the Thoroughbred arena. In few years, Bob Baffert went from curiosity to a mover and shaker. It's possible we're witnessing another such transformation.

Jeff Mullins plied his trade on the bush tracks of Utah, then ventured to Arizona and eventually became the leading trainer at Turf Paradise. A couple years ago he dived into the big time in Southern California. Now he wins the Santa Anita training title, has saddled the last two Santa Anita Derby winners (Buddy Gil and Castledale), runs Castledale in the Kentucky Derby, and is showing up with more and more quality horses.

His ascent looks remarkably familiar to Baffert's. Consider yourself warned.