At a time when he is on the brink of a Triple Crown triumph and is being lauded by the media for his achievements as a trainer, Wayne Lukas still can't repress his hostility toward the "cockroaches" in the media who criticize him.
Throughout the spring, the sport had seen a kinder, gentler Lukas. He admitted that he had badly misjudged Charismatic by entering him in a claiming race prior to his Kentucky Derby victory, and the uncharacteristic self-effacement was almost endearing. But the old Lukas temper flared after one hypothetical question posed by a reporter at Churchill Downs Monday: Lukas's rival, Bob Baffert, is entering the filly Silverbulletday against Charismatic in the Belmont Stakes. What if the positions were reversed? What if Lukas entered a filly against a Baffert-trained Triple Crown aspirant?
As reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal and other newspapers, Lukas responded hotly: "You guys would have a field day. The cockroaches would come right out of the woodwork." In the Preakness, he pointed out, Baffert had run a filly, Excellent Meeting, who was pulled up by her jockey and didn't finish. He speculated about the reaction if this had been a Lukas filly.
"How about me running Excellent Meeting in the Preakness and having her eased? Wouldn't that have been a field day? I wouldn't have been able to even show up here for two weeks. . . . They'd have said, `Well, he couldn't stand to be out of the Preakness, and he ran the filly and now she's ruined.' I'd have been `the Butcher.' "
Lukas worked himself into such high dudgeon that he canceled a scheduled Tuesday appearance on a teleconference, sponsored by Visa and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, designed to promote the Belmont Stakes. He didn't want to talk to any reporters.
Has Lukas received unfair criticism while Baffert gets a free ride from admirers in the media? It may be true that Baffert -- a relative newcomer to the upper echelon of the sport -- is still in his honeymoon phase with the media. But Lukas enjoyed a similar honeymoon, too -- until his flaws became as conspicuous as his strengths. At least that's the view from this cockroach.
When Lukas burst onto the national racing scene in the early 1980s, he was hailed for his fresh and brilliant approach to the game. At a time when every horse trainer was a regional operator -- Woody Stephens was a New York trainer, Charlie Whittingham a California trainer, etc. -- he was the first member of his profession to take a national view; he moved his horses around the nation's tracks like pieces on a chessboard. Like a chess master, he saw opportunities that everybody else missed. He revolutionized his profession.
Moreover, his management of individual horses was stunningly innovative. He brought Codex into the 1980 Preakness after a five-week layoff, and didn't work him farther than five furlongs during that period -- a radical departure from racing orthodoxy. When Codex gave Lukas his first victory in a Triple Crown event, the trainer was praised -- by some of the journalists he now describes as cockroaches -- as a genius who marched to the sound of a different drummer.
Unlike many other top trainers, Lukas is intensely goal-oriented. The traditionalists preached that they always did what was best for the individual horse; if a horse wasn't ready to run effectively until he was 4 or 5 years old, so be it. But Lukas measures worth as a trainer by his money-winning totals, his victories in Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races. That's how we keep score in this game, he likes to say. To reach these goals, he often pushes horses when they shouldn't be pushed. In 1997, when he didn't have a credible 3-year-old contender, he kept putting ill-prepared youngsters on the fast track to the Kentucky Derby, and those colts -- now-forgotten prospects like Wrightwood, Twin Spires and Deeds Not Words -- never amounted to anything. Rarely in recent years has Lukas managed a horse in a way that inspires awe and admiration, as his work with Codex did.
Lukas's relations with the media soured permanently when Union City was destroyed after snapping an ankle in the 1993 Preakness; the trainer was stung by criticism that the colt was ailing and shouldn't have run. He responds that any trainer's horse can break down -- it happened to Baffert's gelding Cavonnier in the 1996 Belmont, for example -- but that the critics only make an issue of Lukas horses.
If the media pay special attention to Lukas horses, it is because their misfortunes are too conspicuous to ignore. After Codex's Preakness win, he was reported to be sore in his training before the Belmont; he was soundly beaten and never raced again. After Tank's Prospect won the Preakness in 1985, he was rumored to be sore before the Belmont; he went lame in the race. Union City had finished 15th in the Derby and didn't have a workout in the two weeks before he broke down in the Preakness. Lukas's horses who run in the Triple Crown race have suffered a terrible attrition rate. Of his seven classic-winning colts before Charismatic, six never raced as 4-year-olds. Pointing out these facts does not mean there is a media vendetta against Lukas.
What makes Lukas such a compelling, larger-than-life figure is that his weaknesses are so closely intertwined with his strengths. Sometimes they are indistinguishable. He is relentless and driven by his desire to win the classics. The same obsessiveness that has led to disasters such as Union City has brought him his great triumph this spring.
Much has been written lately about Charismatic's appearance in a claiming race in March at Santa Anita, where any trainer could have acquired the future Kentucky Derby winner for $62,500. But, of course, this would not have happened. A typical trainer would have said: "This horse is doing great. We can run him right back in an $80,000 claimer at Hollywood Park next month." Only one trainer would have won the Kentucky Derby with the colt. Only a man as focused as Lukas would have the optimism and confidence to keep pushing this apparent failure to the Kentucky Derby.
His management of Charismatic has highlighted Lukas's skills and virtues as a trainer so vividly that even some of us cockroaches have watched with admiration. This wasn't the time for the trainer to revive old hostilities. But for somebody as driven and focused and obsessed as Lukas, maybe it would be out of character to pause and savor his moment of glory.