Wayne Lukas often says his profession is filled with hidebound traditionalists who train horses according to methods that are "chiseled in stone."
No one can accuse Lukas of being an old-fashioned trainer this week. He is coming to the Kentucky Derby with a colt, Tank's Prospect, who in the last three weeks underwent throat surgery, flew from Los Angeles to Hot Springs for the Arkansas Derby, flew back to California where he had a ridiculously slow workout, and will fly to Louisville just three days before he races.
Why is Lukas doing it this way?
"Lord knows," he said. "I've tried every other way."
Indeed, the Kentucky Derby is the one remaining source of frustration for Lukas, who was the top money-winning trainer in the United States in 1984 and is well on his way to becoming the dominant member of his profession.
In the last three years, he has saddled two favorites and one second choice in the Derby, and he has used a variety of training schedules and prep races for them. Only the results were the same: Althea (1984), Marfa (1983) and Muttering (1982) all finished out of the money.
The three of them had something else in common, too, which Lukas recognized. Each of them gave the best performance of his life in a prep race before the Derby. So, after Tank's Prospect finished second to champion Chief's Crown in the Breeders' Cup last fall, Lukas designed a schedule to avoid the peaking-too-soon syndrome.
He would run Tank's Prospect in the Santa Anita Derby after a two-month layoff from competition, then go to the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. But the plans seemed to go awry when the colt tired badly and finished dead last at Santa Anita.
Minutes after the race, Lukas asked a veterinarian to examine the colt's throat. What he found was an entrapped epiglottis: a membrane in the throat had swollen and impaired the colt's breathing. Four days later, vets performed surgery. "It came off like an orange peel," Lukas said.
Tank's Prospect didn't get to enjoy much of a convalescence. Three days after the operation, he had a serious workout, and the next day he was on the plane to Hot Springs. Lukas' critics -- who are plentiful in California -- hooted at his excuse for the Santa Anita defeat and his persistence in going to Arkansas. "They were saying, 'Only Lukas could come up with that.' "
As Lukas' horses do so often, Tank's Prospect gave a performance that defied all logic. Swooping around the field on the turn, he ran away from his rivals by 6 1/2 lengths and covered the 1 1/8 miles in an excellent 1:48 2/5. It was one of the best of all the preps for the Derby.
The other top horses in Saturday's race -- Chief's Crown, Rhoman Rule, Spend A Buck and Eternal Prince -- scored their major victories by setting slow paces and leading all the way. Tank's Prospect is the strong stretch-runner in the field.
Sticking to his unconventional plan, Lukas took Tank's Prospect back home to Hollywood Park instead of coming directly to Churchill Downs. He explained, "The horse is back in his own stall on an excellent track without any weather factor and, besides, he's an excellent shipper. I've had good luck doing it this way.
"I won the Super Derby shipping in 18 hours before the race." Indeed, "Wayne off the plane" is becoming a watchword of handicapping.
Lukas is confident Tank's Prospect hasn't peaked, that he is ready to improve on his Arkansas Derby performance. If this were any other race, he might be confident of victory. But he said, "After being there the last four years, I'm not confident. I've looked at the charts of the Derbies and I can't make head nor tails of what happened. The thing mystifies me. But this year, I know I'm going in with as good a chance as I've ever had."
Given Lukas' brilliant success in every other phase of the training game, it's just a matter of time before he finds the winning formula for the Kentucky Derby. If he has found it with Tank's Prospect, his horses will be getting a lot of plane rides, and maybe even some throat operations, in the future.