05/31/2001 11:00PM

Lukas buckles up for Belmont ride

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Does he have another classic surprise in store?

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who trained four of the last seven winners of the Belmont Stakes, startled everyone last spring by capturing the final leg of the Triple Crown with the 18-1 Commendable. Lukas caught many unaware in 1996, when Editor's Note won the Belmont, and though Tabasco Cat won the Preakness in 1994, expert opinion was fairly unanimous that he would not stay the Belmont trip of a mile and a half. But Tabasco Cat was clearly best that afternoon, in defeating Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin among others.

Lukas is devoting his attention these days to preparing Michael Tabor's Buckle Down Ben for the Belmont next weekend, and if he should be successful, it would raise the Lukas surprise level by several notches. A Devil His Due colt, Buckle Down Ben looked good last fall while winning the Laurel Futurity, but he hadn't won since until last weekend, when he scored in an allowance race at Churchill Downs.

"He ran in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in March and was dull," Lukas said. "It turns out he had an upper respiratory infection, which was promptly treated. We thought there might be enough time to make the Belmont, but he hadn't run in seven weeks. There were only two guys I know who could have trained him without a prep race and both - Woody [Stephens] and Charlie [Whittingham] - are gone.

"We needed a mile race around one turn," Lukas said. "The Metropolitan fit the bill but it looked very tough and Buckle Down Ben didn't need a tough race at this time. We got a one-turn mile opportunity here at Churchill Downs last weekend and he won it nicely. He didn't win by much but it was a fast race."

Lukas is realistic about his situation.

"Whatever we are, we're ready," he said. "He hasn't been on the Triple Crown trail to make comparisons and he has to answer two questions: Can he get the trip, and is he good enough? I feel he has the pedigree to stay the mile and a half. And he's built like a stayer: He's a big, rangy individual. Can he hold his own with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness horses? I've found it is difficult to predict how your horse will perform in the Belmont. We don't get a chance to practice much at that distance."

Lukas has engaged Corey Nakatani to ride Buckle Down Ben, who will have one more breeze in Kentucky before flying to New York Wednesday. All four of the trainer's Belmont winners shipped in at mid-week and Lukas sees no reason to change a successful arrangement.

New John Henry book a winner

The tremendous success of the current Seabiscuit book demonstrates once again that a good story, nicely told, is always welcome. By happy coincidence, another heart-warming saga of the turf will soon be published by Eclipse Press as part of its popular Legends series.

The John Henry story can stand on its own for dramatic quality, color, and a rich cast of characters, none more appealing than the little brown horse that captivated the racing world.

A terrible-tempered 2-year-old who loved to destroy his stall, he developed in character as well as in ability to become one of the all-time greats. Sam Rubin, an importer of bicycles, purchased him sight unseen for $25,000 and saw him set an earnings record of more than $6 million.

"John Henry" (by Steve Haskin, Eclipse Press, Lexington,Ky., $24.95) is a delightful account of the life and times of a remarkable athlete. There is a vivid recreation of the first Arlington Million that was the gemstone of his career, but there is an equally compelling chapter on the final victory in the dramatic Ballantine's Special at The Meadowlands.

Meet trainer Ron McAnally, who learns to care deeply for the engaging star and who visited him in retirement bearing juicy apples as a special treat. Meet exercise rider Lewis Cenicola, who waited patiently with John Henry on the way to the track, a journey that could take forever as he scrutinized every scene. The memories come flooding back with every page of "John Henry," and you're going to like it. I guarantee it.