04/15/2004 12:00AM

Lukas down to last hope for Derby

Bill Straus/Keeneland
Prince Arch wins the $111,100 Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland on Thursday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - In brash defiance of the odds, D. Wayne Lukas has gotten to the Kentucky Derby three times in the last five years by saddling an outsider to win the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

But if Lukas is to make that four of the last six, he will have pulled off one of the most improbable wins of his legendary training career. Lukas will run a California-bred named Race for Glory in the Lexington on Saturday, and if the colt is somehow able to overcome his poor recent form and race to a monumental upset, the folks at the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame might have to redo the Lukas plaque by listing a 2004 Lexington victory among his many notable feats.

Lukas won the Lexington in 1999 with Charismatic, a 12-1 shot, in 2002 with Proud Citizen (8-1), and last year with Scrimshaw (6-1). But unlike those winners, Race for Glory comes into this race offering precious little encouragement, having been trounced in four starts dating to last fall. In his last race, a seven-furlong, second-level allowance here on opening day, April 2, Race for Glory finished sixth, beaten 22 lengths.

But even though Race for Glory figures as a rank outsider Saturday, Lukas said he was willing to "take a look at the race. I felt like I at least owed it to myself and the horse."

Race for Glory, owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, represents the last chance for Lukas to make the Derby for the 23rd time in the last 24 years, a remarkable run that began in 1981 and was interrupted only once, in 2001. Lukas, a four-time winner of the Derby, said he would have no trouble missing the 130th Derby, "because if I did, that would be a pretty poor reflection on me. For us to have gone over there for so many years, and then to cry about this or kick the dirt, I would have to be a pretty small person for that to happen."

Partly because Lukas so often cuts one of racing's most visible profiles leading up to the Derby, his absence may only serve to highlight the extended slump in which his stable is mired. At the current Santa Anita meet, where Lukas had his best horses before moving them to Kentucky late last month, he went 0 for 67. And although his horses normally start winning with regularity at Keeneland in the spring, his record was 0 for 26 at this meet after Swissle Stick finished fourth in the second race Thursday.

"Boy, Venus hasn't been aligned with Mars, that's for sure," he said. "You've got to be realistic about what's happened. When you're leading horses over there that deserve to be 10-1 and 15-1, knowledgeable people know they don't belong. I'm in a different position than a lot of trainers with these well-bred horses. You can't just take a Storm Cat or one of these high-priced babies, and say, 'He's a little slow, let's run him for $20,000 where he belongs.' Sometimes you hit a brick wall on their conditions.

"But having said that, I'm still not happy. We need to turn this around, and I think we will turn it around."

Fortunately for Lukas, he does have a former Horse of the Year in his barn, having assumed the training of the 2002 champion, Azeri, in December. By winning the April 3 Apple Blossom in smashing fashion in her first start for Lukas, Azeri allowed her trainer to temporarily forget his recent woes.

"Other than a Derby or Breeders' Cup, the response I got after that race was probably the greatest I've ever gotten," he said. "It was unbelievable, all the calls I got. People were genuinely happy she won, and that helped a lot."

Wednesday at Churchill, Azeri had her first workout since the Apple Blossom when she breezed a half-mile in 47.40 seconds over a muddy track. Lukas said he is leaning toward running Azeri next in the Humana Distaff on the May 1 Derby undercard, as opposed to the Louisville Breeders' Cup the previous day at Churchill.

Whichever race it is, Lukas most likely will have to settle for it being the highlight of his Derby weekend. Of course, he is still eligible to be part of the Derby picture, but only if Race for Glory wins Saturday - and in spite of his uncanny recent success in the Lexington, the odds are stacked against Lukas more than ever this time.

Repository seeks repeat in Stravinsky

Lukas also will run defending champion Repository in the $75,000 Stravinsky Stakes, the seventh of 10 Saturday races. Repository, a 6-year-old mare, is part of a full field of fillies and mares in the Stravinsky, which goes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf.

Other contenders include Dyna Da Wyna, Put Me In, Elusive Honey, and Mooji Moo.

Prince Arch much the best

Prince Arch, a one-time claimer who has improved dramatically since being spotted on turf, rolled to victory Thursday in the $111,100 Forerunner Stakes after capitalizing on a hot pace.

Ridden by Brice Blanc, Prince Arch settled about 12 lengths off the pace before unleashing a torrid stretch run down the center of a firm turf course. He returned $7.40 as the co-second choice after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.64.

Brass Hat also rallied from well back to finish second, 5 3/4 lengths behind the winner and another two lengths ahead of Big Booster. War Trace, the 2-1 favorite, faded to seventh in a field of eight 3-year-olds.

Prince Arch, a Kentucky-bred by Arch, ran in three claiming races on dirt as a 2-year-old, winning once. After going to south Florida for the winter, trainer Ken McPeek transferred him to a new surface, and in just five races, the colt has become a force in the 3-year-old turf division.

"He needed to develop a lot when he was 2," said McPeek. "We snuck him in there for a tag a couple of times, and fortunately we got away with it."

Prince Arch, owned by Ray Cottrell, might wheel back in the April 30 Crown Royal American Turf, said McPeek.