In his meteoric career as a thoroughbred trainer, Wayne Lukas has set a single-season record for earnings, developed champions, won major stakes from coast to coast and earned himself an Eclipse Award. But one goal continues to elude him, frustrate him, baffle him: the Kentucky Derby.
In each of the last four years, Lukas has come here with a highly regarded contender for the Derby, and each time his horse has run dismally. He especially loved his chances of winning with the filly Althea in 1984. She gave the worst performance by a favorite in the Derby's 111-year history and finished 19th.
Lukas has tinkered annually with his approach to the race, looking for a winning formula that will stop his 3-year-olds from peaking too soon or peaking too late. Since orthodox methods have failed him, he is using a more unconventional approach as he tries to win Saturday's race with Badger Land:
*He is bringing his colt into the Derby after a four-week layoff from competition, although no horse has won the Derby this way in 30 years.
*He has stayed about 2,000 miles away from Badger Land most of the spring, letting his 28-year-old son Jeff supervise the colt's pre-Derby preparation.
Maybe this will be the key, because the father-and-son team has been having spectacular success together. For most of last season, Jeff was based in New York, where he consulted daily with his father by phone and sent out a seemingly endless string of stakes winners.
The performance of this eastern division of the operation -- much more than Wayne's California-based horses -- enabled the Lukas stable to win more than $12 million in purses in 1985.
Jeff has cheerfully accepted his subordinate role in his father's operation. In the official racing statistics, he never gets credit for training a winner. But if Badger Land wins the Derby, he won't be denied a place in the record books or a prominent spot in the winner's circle; he owns 50 percent of the colt.
When Jeff was breaking into his father's operation a few years ago, his attention was caught by a filly named Gimieroom, who raced for another stable.
To buy her, he borrowed the necessary money from one of his father's principal clients, Mel Hatley, and they went partners on the deal. Gimieroom had moderate success on the track. When she was retired, Jeff bought a stud service to the stallion Codex that Wayne had earned from training that colt who won the 1980 Preakness. The product of that mating was Badger Land.
For most of Badger Land's career, neither Lukas could have imagined that this might be the colt who could end the family's Kentucky Derby jinx.
"As a 2-year-old," Jeff said, "he was tall but he didn't have enough weight for a large frame. He just didn't have the strength. We thought he had ability but realistically he didn't pick our heads up until he won a stake at Santa Anita in January. Then we started looking at him a little differently."
Since he won that minor stake, Badger Land has performed better and better. It is hard to believe that he is the same animal who compiled an undistinguished two-for-seven record as a 2-year-old.
He improved to finish second behind Snow Chief in a stake at Bay Meadows and then in the Florida Derby. He improved further to win the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah, running 1 1/8 miles in a sensational 1:46 1/5. He followed that triumph with another runaway win in the Flamingo Stakes on April 5.
After that victory, the orthodox move would have been to run in one more prep race before the Derby. But the Lukases decided otherwise. Badger Land had enough preparation. Now he would come directly to Churchill Downs, acclimate himself, come into the Derby fresh and avoid the peak-too-soon syndrome. After Badger Land worked five furlongs in :59 2/5 on Monday, completing his serious preparation, Jeff was delighted with the way the plan seemed to be working.
"That's the best he ever worked," he said after Badger Land had run his final furlong in 11 4/5 seconds. "The rider never asked him. He has his ears up and he was absolutely breezing. The improvement this horse has shown here is incredible."
Maybe this is the formula Wayne Lukas has been seeking over the last few years. If it works, a lot of future contenders are going to be coming into the Kentucky Derby with a four-week layoff and with Jeff Lukas supervising them.