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Why be shy with these numbers?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Some of the all-time training greats were also outstanding self-promoters. The late Woody Stephens, asked once what he had eaten for breakfast that morning, is rumored to have replied, "Bacon and eggs and toast - and did I tell you that I won five straight Belmonts?"
Although the braggadocio could grow a bit tiresome, it was an endearing quality in Stephens, who sealed his legend by sending out every Belmont Stakes winner from 1982 to 1986. Now, the self-promoting skills of another Hall of Fame trainer have become similarly predictable, if occasionally annoying, and yet few people would argue his right to speak up.
At 69, D. Wayne Lukas, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, holds many of the major training records in Thoroughbred racing, including earnings of more than $242 million and 124 Grade 1 victories. He has become a fixture at Triple Crown events over the last quarter-century, regardless of whether the horses he brings belong there. On his way to winning 13 Triple Crown races (a record shared with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons), Lukas has saddled a fair number of horses whose chances could charitably be described as hopeless. In recent years, Lukas has been represented by such forgettable longshots as Deeds Not Words in the 1997 Kentucky Derby (13th and last at 32-1), Table Limit in the 2002 Preakness (11th of 13 at 23-1), and Buckle Down Ben in the 2001 Belmont (seventh of nine at 28-1).
Yet to anyone who might question his motives, Lukas has a quick retort. Alluding to his 13 Triple Crown wins, he recently said, "Know anybody else who has that many?"
That pat answer has served as something of a protective cover for Lukas as the 2005 Triple Crown has unfolded. He sent out Going Wild to an 18th-place finish in the Derby and a last-place finish in the Preakness, both times at odds - 59-1 and 26-1 - that suggested the colt was badly overmatched.
Lukas said he has no regrets about running Going Wild in those races, just as he is not about to apologize for his next move. Early Wednesday, he was scheduled to accompany A.P. Arrow on a charter flight from Louisville to New York, where on Saturday he will run A.P. Arrow as an outsider in the 137th Belmont Stakes. True to form, Lukas is remarkably confident that despite A.P. Arrow's uninspiring credentials - the colt owns just one maiden victory from three career starts - a dramatic upset could be in the works.
"This horse has amazing staying power," he said. "He has a very high cruising speed. I don't know if he's fast enough, and I don't know if he's good enough. But I certainly don't think he'll weaken at a mile and a half."
A.P. Arrow, owned by Michael Paulson, is a son of A.P. Indy, winner of the 1992 Belmont Stakes, out of the Mr. Prospector mare Garimpeiro. He began his career with a runner-up finish in a March 16 maiden sprint at Santa Anita, then ran ninth, beaten 10 1/2 lengths, in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby. In his lone subsequent start, he led throughout in a 1 1/4-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs on May 14, holding off fellow Belmont longshot Nolan's Cat by a half-length and earning a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 89.
Not only is Lukas undaunted about bringing an outsider such as A.P. Arrow to Belmont, but he actually seems to thrive on the abounding skepticism. Three of his four Kentucky Derby winners (Winning Colors being the exception) were lightly regarded, and his 13th and most recent winner of a Triple Crown race was also a surprise: Commendable won the 2000 Belmont Stakes at 18-1, and like A.P. Arrow had won only once beforehand.
"That's one of my top two Belmont memories," said Lukas. "The first was winning with Tabasco Cat [in 1994] for Bill Young and his dear friend, David Reynolds. The second was Commendable. I got a very, very deep feeling of satisfaction when he went out there and won it. Everybody had said, 'Why are you even running here?' "
That Lukas has had just three favorites from 18 Belmont starters, and yet has won the race four times, seems to lend credence to his decision to run A.P. Arrow on Saturday. Lukas pointed out that Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey saw fit to take the mount, and said, "Nobody rides that mile-and-a-half course better than Bailey." Lukas said that he has always thought a lot of A.P. Arrow, who has a stylish pedigree, and that the colt has the kind of early-going running style that "fits the mold of many Belmont winners, including mine" - his other two being Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Editor's Note in 1996.
Still, the odds clearly do not favor A.P. Arrow suddenly jumping up to defeat the likes of Afleet Alex, Giacomo, and some of the more accomplished horses in the current class of 3-year-olds.
To Lukas, that is not exactly the point. The point is he will be at Belmont Park on one of the days when the national sports spotlight shines brightest on racing. Lukas has been a paid spokesman since Jan. 1 for Youbet.com, the interactive online wagering service, but he said no monetary incentives are being provided by Youbet in exchange for running a horse in any Triple Crown race.
"My deal is straight-up, to do their promotional deals, speaking engagements, advertisements, and whatnot," he said.
A Youbet spokesman said that a 20 percent bonus on Lukas's roughly $50,000 annual contract would have been paid to Lukas if he earned a Derby victory, and that the contract calls for an additional 40 percent bonus with a Triple Crown sweep. But, Lukas said, "unless I misread my contract, I don't know of any incentives - and I think I'd have known. As far as I know, if I'd won the Triple Crown, I wouldn't have gotten an extra dime."
In any case, longtime Lukas observers have found it more than curious that he has become a spokesman for a betting service. For years, he has tended to look down his nose at professional handicappers and has frequently responded with potshots during countless group interviews when asked a question relating to odds or other handicapping topics.
"I don't know, you guys are the experts," he has often said, usually tongue in cheek.
He said his affiliation with Youbet is renewable year to year.
"We're just seeing how this goes," he said. "I'm their spokesperson and represent them in their ads and whatever else. So far I'm enjoying it."
But what he enjoys far more is standing in the winner's circle after a Triple Crown race. It has been five years since he won his last, matching his second-longest dry spell since Codex gave him his first victory in a Triple Crown race, the 1980 Preakness. His longest drought ran from the 1988 Derby victory by Winning Colors up to the 1994 Preakness win by Tabasco Cat. The other second-longest streak came between Preakness wins by Codex and Tank's Prospect (1985).
Ask Lukas about any of that, and he gives a blank look and a quick response: "You'll have to look that up." To his credit, he is far more interested in buckling down and doing what he does best - training racehorses - than dealing with trivia.
"Sure, I'm hungry for another one," he said. "I was hungry last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. I stay hungry in that regard. I don't count the years. All I'm looking for, every year, is a horse that can get us in a position to win."
Whether A.P. Arrow is one of those horses seems dubious. Nonetheless, Lukas will be there Saturday, shaking hands, smiling for the cameras, taking part in yet another Triple Crown race - like it or not.
Lukas in the Belmont Stakes
|YEAR||HORSE||ODDS TO $1||FINISH|
|2001||Buckle Down Ben||28.75||7th|
|Prince of Thieves||6.60||5th|