04/13/2016 1:50PM

True to his nature, Lukas accentuates positive over pain

Barbara D. Livingston
D. Wayne Lukas sends longshot Gray Sky in the Arkansas Derby.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – With trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the glass is always at least half full, the sun is always shining, the next race offers another chance to win, the next crop of 2-year-olds is going to be the best one yet. He’s relentlessly positive, and even Wednesday morning, reflecting on the death of his only child, Jeff, three weeks ago, Lukas chose to look at the good, not dwell on the bad.

Speaking of the day in 1993 when Jeff suffered serious injuries when he was run over by Tabasco Cat, Lukas, in his first public comments since Jeff’s death, said: “He got 22 more years that we didn’t think he would after the accident. He’d say, ‘Dad, these are the cards I’ve been dealt.’ He never complained.”

Lukas was sitting in his tack room at Oaklawn Park, where on Saturday he will run the longshot Gray Sky in the $1 million Arkansas Derby, the final major prep for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. It was shortly before 6 a.m., some 45 minutes before the track would open for training. Lukas was making notations on his training charts, readying his runners for races on closing weekend here. It’s the same routine that has provided structure and purpose to his life for decades, and the refuge to which he returned after spending three days in Oklahoma for his son’s funeral.

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Their lives changed irrevocably on Dec. 15, 1993, when Jeff – his top assistant – was trampled by Tabasco Cat in the stable area at Santa Anita. There was the very real chance that Jeff would not survive. But he was saved by a team headed by the neurosurgeon Bill Caton. Lukas then returned to the track and continued to try to work. There was one unguarded moment in the saddling paddock at Santa Anita in late December 1993 when, asked how Jeff was doing in the hospital, he let his guard down, his throat caught, and his eyes, hidden but not blocked by dark sunglasses, understandably misted.

The years since, it seemed Wednesday, had provided Lukas with time to reflect on how it all could have ended all those years ago. As he talked Wednesday, Lukas smiled at the memories of the solace Jeff provided to people who had, or knew those with, similar brain injuries.

“When Tim Layden wrote that story for Sports Illustrated,” Lukas said, referring to a brilliant article Layden wrote about Jeff in October 2013, “a lot of people wrote to him with similar problems – my son went through the same thing, like that – and he wrote back to every single one of those people. He’d articulate that you have to concentrate on your therapy, that things would get better. He concentrated on the positive.”

Jeff’s son, Brady, read one of those letters at his father’s funeral, Lukas said.

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Lukas said Jeff “lived for those kids,” his son, Brady, and daughter, Kelly, both small children when Jeff was injured. He said the drive Jeff had as an assistant trainer has been passed on to Brady, an officer in the Air Force who “just took over,” Lukas said, after Jeff’s death.

“He’s got some serious leadership qualities,” Lukas said.

There were people Lukas knew or met after Jeff’s accident who were instrumental in Jeff’s recovery. Caton, Lukas said, warned him long ago “that this is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing.”

“You just don’t know,” Lukas said Caton told him.

Caton, Lukas recalled, did emergency surgery six days after the accident to relieve pressure inside the cranium. After Jeff went to rehabilitation and eventually lived on his own, Caton stayed in touch with the Lukases.

“Seven or eight years ago, Jeff wasn’t feeling all that good,” Lukas said. “I called Caton. He said, ‘Put him on a plane and send him to Pasadena.’ Jeff lived with him for 10 days while Caton checked on him. These days, you wait two months to get an appointment with a world-class neurosurgeon like him. He had Jeff stay in a room in his house. He changed up his meds, and Jeff felt better.”

Robert Lewis, for whom Lukas campaigned a number of top-class runners, including Derby winner Charismatic, helped get Jeff into Casa Colina, a rehab facility in Southern California, after he got out of the hospital.

”He made sure Jeff had everything,” Lukas said.

David Burrage, a longtime business manager for Lukas, was the one who helped move Jeff to Oklahoma, gave him work, and checked on him.

“David Burrage, he just adopted Jeff,” Lukas said. “I don’t know that I could say enough appreciation for him.”

Lukas is 80 now. His mind is still razor sharp, and he still gets on a pony in the mornings for training. The only concession is that he uses a step stool to help ease his way into the saddle. But he’s forever looking forward. Before riding off with his first set, Lukas said, “I think I’ve got some outstanding 2-year-olds.”

“Like in our heydays in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Lukas said. “We could have a real good year.”


◗ A field of 12 was entered on Wednesday for the Arkansas Derby, with Rebel Stakes winner Cupid landing post 10. He is the 2-1 favorite on the track’s morning line. From the rail out, the field for the 1 1/8-mile race is Discreetness, Cutacorner, Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, American Pioneer, Unbridled Outlaw, Dazzling Gem, Whitmore, Luna de Loco, Cupid, Gray Sky, and Gettysburg.

The Arkansas Derby is the last Kentucky Derby prep that offers 170 qualifying points overall, including 100 for first and 40 for second.