There are certain well-established right ways and wrong ways to prepare a horse for the Kentucky Derby. Wayne Lukas thought over his options and chose to do it the wrong way.
Lukas' colt, Muttering, won the Santa Anita Derby to establish himself as the leading 3-year-old on the West Coast. But that was four weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and Muttering would surely need one prep race in between. Not since 1956 has a horse won here after such a long period of inactivity.
Lukas could have entered Muttering in the Blue Grass Stakes or the Derby Trial last week. Instead, he chose . . . nothing. Muttering won't have a prep race. Nor will he have the obligatory long, hard workouts. A pair of five-furlong works will constitute his entire preparation for Saturday's race.
This is so ridiculous that a handicapper ought to be able to dismiss the colt as a Derby contender, except for one small consideration. In 1980, Lukas brought a Santa Anita Derby winner to the Preakness after a 34-day layoff, gave him no prep races and only a couple of inadequate five-furlong workouts. He couldn't possibly win with such a schedule. But that colt, Codex, ran the race of his life at Pimlico, trouncing Genuine Risk by four lengths and verifying some of Lukas' heterodox views of his own profession.
Lukas had once earned the enmity of some of his colleagues when he was quoted as saying that there were trainers in the Racing Hall of Fame "that I wouldn't trust with my pony." Before that memorable Preakness victory, he had said, "This is a hand-me-down profession, and I don't believe in all these training maxims that are chiseled in stone." His triumph with Codex, and his consistent success on the West Coast, have given him the confidence to keep marching to the sound of a different drummer.
"If you use a race such as the Blue Grass or the Trial," he said, explaining Muttering's inactivity, "your schedule and training methods are dictated for you. Instead of one objective, you have two or three. You have to worry about building up to that race and recovering. Besides, I don't want to have a horse overfit for the Derby.
"We all get caught up in the physical aspects of training, but the big thing is the mental aspects. This is what separates all athletes; the teams who make it to the Super Bowl are not necessarily the best physically, but they're the best emotionally. I want to keep a horse content, happy, sure of himself . . . "
Lukas detected a trace of a skeptical smile in his listener. "You may laugh," he said, "but I want a horse to be confident so he will run to his ability. To do that, you have to bring him into a race with a certain eagerness."
He recalled his days coaching basketball, on the high-school level and then as an assistant at the University of Wisconsin. "When I blew the whistle to end practice and everybody ran for the showers, it was a bad practice. But when I blew the whistle and they stayed on the court, shooting baskets, playing two-on-two, that was a good practice. I want my horse to feel that way. I want him to think, 'Damn, is that all?' when we're done training."
Muttering has testified to the validity of Lukas' approach; all four of his victories (in a nine-race career) have come after a layoff of a month or more. His supremacy among a fairly deep and talented group of 3-year-olds in California ought to make him a strong contender against the weakest Derby field in a decade.
But the doubts about his preparation still linger. It's one thing for Muttering to win races at a mile or a mile and an eighth off a layoff; 1 1/4 miles is a different game. It's one thing for Lukas to win the Preakness with his unusual tactics; there, he said, he knew he was encountering horses who were tired from the stress of the Derby. But the Derby is almost always won by a well-conditioned horse, not a fresh horse.
"If Muttering turns for home on Saturday and starts getting rubber-legged," Lukas said, "I'll be the first to say, 'We should have run in the Blue Grass.' " But he acts and sounds like a man who believes he will not need to second-guess himself Saturday afternoon.