06/06/2006 11:00PM

Lukas upbeat despite being winless at meet

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Churchill Downs
Rush Bay (right), here beating Purim by a head in the Opening Verse on June 3. The two could meet again in the Stars and Stripes Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The last time the Belmont Stakes field lacked both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, the winning trainer wound up being D. Wayne Lukas.

That was six years ago, when Commendable upset the 132nd Belmont at 18-1. The victory was the 13th and most recent in a Triple Crown event for Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer who maintains a keen perspective on the meaning of a Belmont in a so-called down year.

"Whenever you don't have a Triple Crown on the line, there's a downward trend in interest, excitement, and importance for the Belmont that year," Lukas said Wednesday morning. "That's not to say the Belmont this year is not important. A classic is a classic. It's being run in the media capital of the world. Obviously it will be a jewel in the resume of whichever guy wins it, and it will establish the winner as one of the better 3-year-olds of this year, although the horse probably won't be held in the same light as the Derby or Preakness winner."

Lukas did not have a serious candidate for any of the Triple Crown races this year, although he said he could have run Simon Pure in the Belmont. Simon Pure will run instead in the June 17 Northern Dancer at Churchill.

"You can wish and hope you have the horses with the talent to compete in these big races," he said. "What it comes down to is, people have opinions, but horses have the facts."

Besides missing every Triple Crown race for the second time in three years - he also had no starters in 2004 - Lukas has endured a particularly tough year so far. Into Wednesday, he had just 14 wins from 213 starts in 2006, and at his current pace this would be his worst year for stable earnings since 1980, one of his first years in the Thoroughbred business. At the Churchill spring meet, he was 0 for 34 heading into Wednesday.

Nonetheless, Lukas is putting a positive spin on how his stable, which currently is split between Churchill and Arlington Park, no longer carries the clout it once did.

"I'm totally excited about a couple of the young horses I'm training right now," said Lukas. "I'm coming to the barn more excited than I have in years."

Whenever he is slumping, Lukas said, he likes to recall a quote from Charlie Whittingham, the late Hall of Fame trainer.

"Somebody told Charlie one time that I was having a bad meet," said Lukas. "And Charlie said, 'Yeah, well, don't kick that sleeping dog.' "

Rush Bay, Purim eye Stars and Stripes

Rush Bay and Purim, the one-two finishers in an outstanding renewal of the Opening Verse Handicap last Saturday, could have a rematch in the July 2 Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington Park.

Tom Amoss, trainer of Rush Bay, said he is not thinking beyond the 1 1/2-mile Stars and Stripes, but conceded the Aug. 12 Arlington Million could come afterward.

"We're going to try something big with him," said Amoss.

Tom Proctor, who trains Purim, said he has no particular race in mind.

"I'll nominate to a few stakes on the [July 4] holiday weekend," including the Stars and Stripes, he said.

Asked about the Million, Proctor said he wants to run the horse "where he's got a shot."

"Dreams can turn into nightmares in this game, you know," he said.

Trainer enduring 15-year drought

When Mugal Ruler was distanced in the seventh race last Saturday at Churchill, he continued an abysmal streak for his owner-trainer, Naseem Rauf.

Rauf has not trained a winner since 1990, a year in which he went 2 for 76. Since 1991, Rauf's record is 0 for 320.

Rauf, whose training records in the Daily Racing Form database date to 1984, trains primarily at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington. He declined to answer questions about his operation Tuesday.

Troilo getting ready to ride again

Veteran jockey Bill Troilo, sidelined since mid-January, when he underwent a cartilage transplant in a knee, said he plans to resume riding Wednesday.

"I've been getting on horses for about three weeks, and the knee really feels good," said Troilo, a 45-year-old Philadelphia native who has ridden some 1,700 winners in a riding career that dates to 1981.

Bratt'sstablestar leads competitive feature

Three allowances are carded in an 11-race card Friday at Churchill, with the nominal feature being a $58,000 second-level turf sprint for fillies and mares (race 9).

With a full field, the feature represents the richest race of the day and possibly the best betting race. , with Rene Douglas named to ride.

The feature is bookended by a pair of $54,000 first-level allowances (races 8 and 10). First post is 2:45 p.m. Eastern.

* Brass Hat, one of the favorites for the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 17, worked five furlongs in 1:02.80 Wednesday at the Trackside training center in Louisville. Willie Martinez, the gelding's regular rider, was aboard. "I thought he worked really well," said trainer Buff Bradley.

* There is not a graded or listed stakes race this coming weekend at Churchill, although the Saturday feature, the Excitable Lady, will carry a $70,000 purse as part of the track's meet-long series of overnight handicaps. The Excitable Lady, a five-furlong turf race for fillies and mares, will highlight a 10-race card when it shares the spotlight with the Belmont simulcast.

* Churchill and its offtrack outlets will offer advance wagering on the Belmont on Friday.