Lukas stays cool through dry Triple Crown
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
When it comes to the Triple Crown, Wayne Lukas has managed to be labeled both successful and desperate. He has won four Kentucky Derbies, five Preaknesses and four Belmonts, but his critics, of which there are many, won't let him forget the many horses he has run in the classics who simply didn't belong, including the infamous Deeds Not Words. It has sometimes seemed that Lukas is so obsessed by the Triple Crown races that he loses all discretion when evaluating his candidates. If they have a pulse and four legs, they will run.
For the first time since 1980, he missed the Kentucky Derby. For only the second time since 1985, he missed the Preakness. Armed at the beginning of the year with a rich array of 3-year-old talent, Lukas' stable performed dismally throughout Kentucky Derby prep season, leaving him with no viable candidates for the Kentucky Derby.
But his on-track failures did not lead to him to do anything irrational. In 1997, he said that he could easily live without the Kentucky Derby and then seemed disingenuous when he threw a hopeless bum into the race in Deeds Not Words at the last minute. Deeds Not Words, who was last, kept his streak alive, but sullied Lukas' reputation. Yes, he seemed desperate to have a Kentucky Derby starter, any Kentucky Derby starter.
Many expected him to do the same this year, to dig up whatever 3-year-old he could find and cram him into the Derby field to keep his streak alive. Instead, he never lost his senses, never did anything to raise the ire of his critics. Does he want to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby? Who doesn't? Is he irrationally obsessed with the race? Apparently not. Lukas went a long way this year to proving the critics wrong. Unsuccessful on the racetrack, that has been his victory in the Triple Crown.
"I'm glad to have a Belmont entry, but I never felt any withdrawals going through the spring," Lukas said. "People wanted to make that a storyline all spring. I must have been asked that question over and over. I never felt that way. After 20 consecutive years in the Derby, I felt that we weren't realistically in the picture. It was very easy for me to step back. I didn't want to be nothing more than a participant."
He was at Churchill Downs on Derby Day running other horses and watched the Derby itself from the box of owner William T. Young. He said he was so oblivious to the running of the Preakness that he nearly forgot to watch it. "I was at my house in Glendora (California) cleaning up the yard and putting a tarp on the pool," he recalled. "I glanced at my watch and saw that they were getting ready to run. Half of them were in the gate when I got to the TV. I watched the race, they hit the wire and I went back to work on the pool."
About the same time, Lukas was starting to get Buckle Down Ben straightened out.
Owner Michael Tabor privately acquired the colt shortly before the Fountain of Youth, which looked like a good idea at the time. The son of Devil His Due was coming off a solid second place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes and won the Laurel Futurity earlier in his career. But he looked awful in the Fountain of Youth and worse in the Spiral Stakes, where he was beaten by 25 3/4 lengths. It was after that Spiral that Lukas discovered the colt was suffering from an upper respiratory problem and wisely backed off on him. Buckle Down Ben was not seen for two months before returning with a May 27 allowance victory at Churchill Downs. Winning by just a neck over moderate competition, it was not a great performance but it at least showed that the horse was back on the right track.
"He's a horse that is going to be overlooked by a lot of people," Lukas said. "He's an unknown. Nobody knows where I've got this horse. You can look at his last race and say it wasn't against the best of the division and it was a one-turn race, so there are a lot of negatives that you could point to. But I think he will make as strong showing. I think he's a horse who is fresh and is doing very good. I'm not going to stand here and say he'll win the Belmont and if he wins it I'm not going to stand here and say I told you so. He deserves a shot."
The linemaker has made Buckle Down Ben 30-1, which could lead to cries that Lukas is running another bum just for the sake of running in a Triple Crown race. But no one dare accuse him of that after what he pulled off last year with Commendable. After being beaten 26 lengths in the Kentucky Derby, the colt looked to be in hopelessly over his head in the Belmont, so much so that his 18-1 odds appeared to be a tremendous underlay. As he has so many times in his career, Lukas got the last laugh, proving he knew what he was doing. Commendable won by 1 ½ lengths. It's hard to imagine Buckle Down Ben beating horses like Point Given and Monarchos, but it's not an impossibility, either. He belongs in this race and didn't belong in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. Win or lose, this is the Triple Crown in which Wayne Lukas has made the right moves.