Trainer Wayne Lukas had been sitting on his pony, watching intently as his colt Saratoga Six worked three-quarters of a mile around the Santa Anita track. Lukas was getting serious with the 2-year-old, honing him into peak condition, preparing him for the Breeders' Cup with its $1 million purse.
"We were really going to show people something," Lukas said. "We were going to set the world on fire in the Breeders' Cup."
Saratoga Six was in high gear when he came past Lukas, about a sixteenth of a mile before the finish line. "He was going as smooth as silk," the trainer said. And then Lukas heard the horrifying sound that he still remembers vividly.
"It was a crack like a rifle shot," Lukas said. In fact, it was the sound of the sesamoid bones shattering in the colt's left front ankle. And the trainer knew, instantly, that Saratoga Six would never again be setting any worlds on fire.
Lukas and five partners had spent $2.2 million for the son of Alydar as a yearling and they never had reason to doubt the wisdom of their investment. He won his debut easily. In the second start of his career, the Hollywood Juvenile Stakes, he trailed by 15 lengths but flew past the entire field with an astounding burst of speed. He had run his record to four for four when his career was abruptly ended.
But Satatoga Six had never had the chance to prove conclusively how good he was. "Based strictly on form," said Jeff Siegel, the top West Coast handicapper, "it was hard for me to consider him a great 2-year-old. He had not beaten good horses and he'd never run fast. But he did look like the type who was going to get better with time."
Lukas understands this skepticism. "Angel Cordero and I were the only people who really knew what this colt could really do. When Cordero let him run that quarter mile in the Juvenile you just saw a hint of what he was capable. But I saw no need to squeeze the lemon too soon."
It was a week ago Monday when Lukas started to ask Saratoga Six to bear down in his training and then, moments later, knew that the colt's great challenge was going to be simple survival.
A horse ambulance took him back to Lukas' barn, where he was fitted with a cast while he awaited surgery. "Usually, when the adrenaline is flowing it's hard to calm a horse down, but Saratoga Six was remarkable," Lukas said. "It was as if he sensed that we were trying to help him."
Two days later, the colt underwent a 3 1/2-hour operation called a fetlock arthrodesis; 21 screws were used to hold his ankle together. Just five years ago, the chances of survival would have been slim for a horse who had suffered such a serious injury. But this morning Saratoga Six was standing calmly in his stall, looking as fit as he could be under the circumstances, awaiting the start of a stud career in Kentucky next year.
It was only two years ago that Lukas suffered an even greater blow, the sudden death of his great 2-year-old filly, Landaluce. "They were the two best horses I've ever been associated with," he said. "I was just numb when this happened. But it's not quite as traumatic as with Landaluce, because at least this horse has a chance for a stud career.
"Financially, this is not such a big loss to us. We've been bombarded by requests to breed to Saratoga Six. But what a loss to racing! . . .