Updated on 09/16/2011 8:17AM

Three Without Fear are without ammo


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Even people who are not racing fans readily recognize the names of three contemporary trainers: Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito, who have become the best-known members of their profession by capturing eight of the last 14 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. Over the past eight years they have accounted for a remarkable 18 of 24 Triple Crown races.

But none of these trainers is likely to be hoisting a trophy in the winner's circle this year at Churchill Downs - or at Pimlico or Belmont, either.

Zito doesn't have a starter in the Derby.

Lukas didn't have one either until Proud Citizen earned his way into the field 12 days ago with a victory in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. However, the colt is much more likely to finish last than to earn a blanket of roses Saturday.

Baffert has a longshot chance to win the Derby, though a victory might deserve an asterisk in the record books. After all of the trainer's own 3-year-olds fell by the wayside, one of Baffert's principal clients, The Thoroughbred Corporation, bought Illinois Derby winner War Emblem in order to have a starter in America's most famous race.

The lean year experienced by these three powerful stables underscores the fact that there are drawbacks to an all-out pursuit of Triple Crown glory. The downside for a young horse is roughly the same as for a grammar-school student groomed by his parents to win at Wimbledon. Pushing young, undeveloped athletes too fast, too soon can have damaging effects. That's why some of the country's most skillful and respected trainers, such as Hall of Famers Bill Mott and Bobby Frankel, have never won a Derby and have rarely tried to do so.

"I do want to win the Derby," said Mott, who will saddle Blue Burner in this year's race, "but I don't want to do it at the expense of the horse. A horse might have a minor problem that's reparable with a little time, but if you go too fast with them it becomes irreparable. As trainers, we have a responsibility for the horses' welfare. We should be their protector. You learn over time that if you do what's best for the horse it's going to benefit you in the long run."

Frankel echoed that sentiment this week. To get a horse to the Derby, he said, a trainer must start pushing him hard as a 2-year-old, and to push a 2-year-old hard "you can't have too much conscience."

Racing fans don't see most of the casualties of an assault on the Triple Crown because they disappear without a trace. But Daily Racing Form publishes in early spring a special edition with the past performances of all the nominees to the Triple Crown series, and it is a revealing document. Lukas was listed as the trainer of 14 horses who sold as yearlings for a total of $23 million, plus six others with regal pedigrees owned by their breeders. Most of them amount to nothing, and none but Proud Citizen got close to making the Derby. Maybe they would have been failures under any trainer and any regimen, but putting them on the fast track to the Derby surely didn't benefit them.

Although it is easy for purists to criticize their approach (and this column has contained an ample amount of Lukas-bashing over the years), Lukas, Baffert, and Zito are smart men who have made a rational calculation to attack the sport as they do. They have seen the Triple Crown races become the focal points of American racing - the events that make a trainer's reputation, make a horse's reputation, and ensure the horse's prospective value as a stallion. A trainer who looks for other objectives is a bit like an Olympic athlete who sets his sights on winning the bronze medal.

Zito, perhaps more than any other member of his profession, appreciates how the Derby can transform a trainer's career. He had toiled for many years with little recognition until he won the Derby with Strike the Gold in 1991.

"I made my reputation this way," Zito said. New owners sought him out because they knew he had won a Derby, and that was their dream, too. As a result, Zito said, "From the day you send a horse to me, I start aiming for the Derby."

Baffert is similarly focused, and he is unapologetic about criticism that he had to buy his way into this year's field: "When a baseball player breaks his bat, he goes and gets another one. I don't care that I didn't develop [War Emblem]. I want to win this race."

The danger for any trainer so focused on a single goal is that he can lose perspective. Zito talks enthusiastically about the Preakness prospects of his top colt, Straight Gin, but nothing in his record suggests that Straight Gin is much more than an allowance-class runner. Lukas is characteristcally upbeat about the chances of Proud Citizen, but the colt won the Lexington in a slow time with the aid of the rail-favoring Keeneland bias, and a realistic trainer might have picked a more modest objective than the Derby.

But, of course, Lukas's critics would have said he was unrealistic in 1999 when he brought a former $62,500 claimer named Charismatic into the 1999 Triple Crown series and won both the Derby and Preakness. America's greatest races do not reward the prudence and caution that are such esteemed virtues in the training profession. To win the Derby, a trainer needs to be as confident, aggressive, focused, and obsessive as the men who have dominated the race for the last decade. None of them will have his enthusiasm dampened by one subpar year.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post