04/20/2003 11:00PM

Lukas-Lexington route is proven

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - A year ago, when Wayne Lukas purchased Scrimshaw at the Keeneland 2-year-old sales for $550,000 on behalf of Bob and Beverly Lewis of Newport Beach, Calif., the Gulch colt was beginning to buck shins. His workout prior to the sales was a good one, however, and Lukas reasoned that if Scrimshaw was not distracted by his sore shins in the work, he might be worth having in the stable.

From the sales ring in April of 2002 to the winner's circle at Keeneland last Saturday after his impressive three-length victory in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes, it hasn't been an easy trip for Scrimshaw. But he has consistently managed to overcome problems and now he stands on the threshold of the Kentucky Derby as one of the more plausible challengers to the favored Empire Maker.

Scrimshaw's Lexington was eventful from the outset as he stumbled leaving the gate. He recovered quickly, however, and was in good position on the rail as he entered the first turn, inside two horses. Most Feared, the outside horse in this group of three, came in suddenly, sending Ministers Wild Cat, the 2-1 favorite, into Scrimshaw.

Most Feared, living up to his name, came in several times, and it is difficult to tell which of the two horses inside of him took the worst of it. But Scrimshaw went on to win, coming from off the pace in the upper stretch and drawing away in the final furlong with the 8-1 Eye of the Tiger nipping Domestic Dispute for second.

Scrimshaw's 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.47 was not inspiring but soaking rains during the week left their mark on the track. The fact is that he overcame adversity to win, and could improve off the Lexington, which was his first start since Feb. 15.

"Of all the horses in the Derby," Lukas said, "he's got the most room to improve."

Lukas knows the Derby scene. He has started horses in 21 Derbies and his four victories is second only to Ben Jones of Calumet Farm who saddled six winners. Like Ben Jones, Lukas knows his profession and isn't afraid to take a chance when a risk is worthwhile.

Scrimshaw's shins, following his purchase last year, began to bother him and Lukas had them fired. The colt made his first appearance, at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet Nov. 3, and finished well to win by two lengths. He ran again on the opening-day card at Santa Anita in late December and made people take notice, stepping six furlongs in 1:08.35. This fellow has talent.

A solid favorite in his first stakes appearance in the Santa Catalina in mid-January, he showed signs of a breathing problem. Seeking to avoid surgery, Lukas sent Scrimshaw to Gulfstream Park for the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes. He finished fourth, failed to accelerate, and Jerry Bailey, who rode him, told Lukas his mount was having difficulty getting his air.

"We had to bite the bullet," Lukas said. "The throat operation is not always successful but Dr. Rolf Embertson of Rood and Riddle did a great job and the colt was back under tack three weeks later. He resumed training nicely but I needed to see something in the Lexington. That has been a good race for us. Charismatic won it and went on to win the Derby and last year Proud Citizen won and ran second in the Derby."

Then a two-week interval between the last prep race and the Derby is ideal?

"Not for every horse," Lukas said. "Charismatic and Proud Citizen were robust individuals. Scrimshaw is a rangy type. He has a good mental attitude. He doesn't stress himself. He is very cool in the paddock for example. We'll give him a little more time to get over the Lexington and he will have one good work at Churchill Downs before the Derby. That should be enough to have him on edge."

Will Empire Maker be beaten?

"He deserves to be the favorite," Lukas said. "He has done more than anyone else. But you can never be sure about the Derby, and if you think you've got a base on balls, you may have another thing coming."