Wayne Lukas' critics say that his training methods have more style than substance.
His barns are always beautifully lanscaped, surrounded by a white picket fence. Each of his horses has a freshly painted white feed tub hanging outside his stall, but those tubs are strictly for show. The horses don't eat from the fancy crockery.
Lukas' verbal style can be dazzling, too. Although he has been training thoroughbreds for only three years, he will expound -- enthusiastically and articulately -- on his philosophy of the game. On a foray to Belmont Park two years ago, he said there were a number of Hall of Frame trainers in New York "that I wouldn't trust with my pony."
Lukas' record has answered most of his critics; he is the top money-winning trainer in the country this year. But the week he has the ultimate opportunity to put up or shut up.
He brought his colt Codex for California to Pimlico Tuesday night. He will attempt to win Saturday's Preakness with a method of preparation that would render obsolete every time-honored maxium about training for a Triple Crown event.
"This is a hand-me-down profession," he said this morning. "Top trainers start out by working for somebody, and they pick up generalizations from them. I don't necessarily believe in all these training theories that are chiseled in stone."
Lukas did not come by his knowledge or his current success in any hand-me-down fashion. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, coached high school basketball for seven years, and then became a trainer of quarter-horses. When he developed a speedster named Dash For Cash into one of the best quarter-horses in the country, he had reached the zenith of his profession.
Immediately he began feeling restless, looking for new worlds to conquer, I'd drive from Los Alamitos (the quarter-horse track) past Santa Anita and say "I'd like to do this,'" Lukas recalled. "I never worried much about making the transition. The big thing was getting people to believe. To make chicken salad you've got to have the chicken."
He got his big chance from John Nerud, the veteran horseman who had trained Dr. Fager and now was the president of Tartan Farm. Nerud said that Tartan was going to campaign a divisionof its horses in California, and invited Lukas to train them.
Nerud sent a group of untested 2-year-olds to Lukas and one of them was Codex. He didn't make much of an impression on the trainer, or anybody else, and Lukas did not brother to nominate him for the Kentucky Derby.
In retrospect now, Lukas likens the colt ot some of the young basketball players he used to coach. When he worked with freshmen, he concentrated on the ungainly kid who was going to grow into a 6-foot-6 senior rather than the 5-9 player who was already coordinated. "Codex was like the kind who was staggering around and couldn't who was staggering around and couldn't tie his shoelaces," Lukas said. "He's living proof that you shouldn't give up on a horse."
After winning only two minor races in his first nine starts, Codex came to life this spring, beating Rumbo twice to win the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Derby. Although Codex wasn't eigible to go to Churchill Downs, Rumbo was, and when Rumbo finished second to Genuine Risk he provided evidence that Codex might be the best 3-year-old in America.
After the Derby, Nerud flew to California to consult with Lukas about future plans for Codex. Nerud was leaning strongly toward keeping him on the West Coast. "I showed him the horse," Lukas said, "and he was surprised by his condition -- he looked so good. Later we drove to my farm and he finally asked, 'Do you want to take your horse to the Preakness?' I said, 'I'd like to.'"
Lukas attributes Codex's success partly to the colt's late development, and partly to his own understanding of the animal. "We started to picked up a patttern on the horse: He likes his work spaced more than most horses."
When Codex scored his first victory of the year in an allowance race, he did it after a six-week absence from competition, with only two slow workouts in the interim. He didn't train hard for either the Santa Anita Derby or the Hollywood Derby.
Codex has not run since that victory at Hollywood. He will come into the Preakness with only three five-furlong workouts in the intervening 34 days.
Horses never run in Triple Crown races after more than a two-or three week layoff. If they have been away from competition as long as three weeks, they will always have a long, hard workout to get them fit. When the possible exception of Conoero Ii, no horse has come into a Triple Crown event in modern times with such light, unorthodox training as Codex. Lukas admitted that even his boss, Nerud, has raised his eyebrows.
Yet Lukas exudes confidence that he knows his horse and that he knows what he is doing. If he succeeds Saturday he will be renowned in the racing world for a lot more than pretty barns and smooth talk.