ARCADIA, Calif. -- The horse Jeff Lukas will be rooting for to win the Santa Anita Derby this afternoon is the same animal that almost killed him four months ago.
Lukas will be sitting in a car on the backstretch at Santa Anita Park, well away from the roar of the crowd, but still close to the action.
It will be Lukas' first trip to the races since Tabasco Cat, a horse he helped his father, D. Wayne Lukas, train, ran him down in the barn area on Dec. 15, after he stepped out and tried to flag down the scared animal.
The horse, who had gotten loose from his groom, hit Lukas. Lukas, 37, was airlifted from the track by helicopter and lay in a coma for nearly three weeks.
Two days after the accident, he almost died from brain damage, then from pneumonia, as he stayed in the hospital for about two months. "You don't get any closer to death than he did," said his wife, Linda.
"I was mad at first, but you can't get mad," she said. "The horse is bred to run, whether he is scared or just for fun. There are loose horses in the barn area every day. I've seen Jeff run out and try to stop them a hundred times. It was just an accident."
Jeff Lukas doesn't remember anything about the incident, his wife said, "and the doctor said he probably never will. Even the whole hospital stay is only a blur."
Lukas was released from the hospital in early March. He spends days at home and nights at a rehabilitation center about six miles from his home in Glendora, Calif.
"This weekend is the first time he can stay at home for two whole days. Then, hopefully, in a week or two, he will be able to move home," Linda Lukas said.
The couple, which has two children, Brady, 4, and Kelly, 1, has been swamped with interview requests, and Linda hoped to have her husband meet with reporters yesterday. "But Jeff said no. He's not up to talking to a large group of people, and he hasn't been keeping up with the horses, although I bought him a Racing Form last night and he read all about the Santa Anita Derby."
Tabasco Cat, unbeaten in two 1994 stakes starts, is the second choice to win the $500,000 race.
Friends who have been to see Lukas say he walks unassisted, but with a limp. He injured his right eye in the accident and still looks at people with a blank stare. He has trouble with depth perception when he walks. He speaks well, but still has $l short-term memory loss.
His recovery has been remarkable, and he could be back to work full time by September, said his wife. "The doctor said that the only permanent ill effects should be less vision in his right eye and a little change in his personality," she said. "Already I can tell that. Before, he was quiet and conservative. Now, he's more outgoing.
"I'm a firm believer that things like this happen for a reason. If he had died, I wouldn't have understood it. But now I know something really good is going to come out of this. Before, we'd take Brady to Little League games and I'd say, 'Jeff, one day you'll be able to coach Brady.' He'd say, 'Well, I might not have the time. I work seven days a week.' But I mentioned it again the other day, and this time he said, 'Great, I can hardly wait.' When something like this happens, you appreciate what you have just a little bit more.' "
Wayne Lukas has said he tries to separate what happened to his son from the success of Tabasco Cat, his Triple Crown hope.
"The press has to realize this is a private thing, and we have to get our lives back together," Wayne Lukas said. "We're trying not to make this an issue."
SANTA ANITA DERBY
What: 57th running of the Grade I stakes for 3-year-olds today at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $500,000 first, $275,000 second, $100,000 third, $75,000 fourth, $37,500 fifth, $12,500 sixth
Stakes record: 1:47, Lucky Debonair 1965
Track record: 1:45 4/5, Star Spangled 1979
Last year's winner: Personal Hope
Post time: 5:46 p.m. EDT
TV: Live on ABC (Channel 13) "Wide World of Sports"
PP.. .. .. .. .Horse.. .. .. .. . Jockey.. .. .. .. .. .. Odds
1.. .. .. .. ..Polluck's Luck.. . Eddie Delahoussaye.. .. 20-1
2.. .. .. .. . Tabasco Cat. .. .. Pat Day.. .. .. .. .. .. 5-2
3.. .. .. .. . Brocco .. .. .. .. Gary Stevens.. .. .. .. .7-5
4.. .. .. .. . Soul Of The Matter.Kent Desormeaux.. .. .. .3-1
5.. .. .. .. . a-Strodes Creek .. Corey Black .. .. .. .. .9-2
6.. .. .. .. . a-Numerous.. .. .. Chris McCarron.. .. .. ..9-2
7.. .. .. .. . Fly'n.. .. .. .. . J. Bryan Pat Valenzuela 15-1
8.. .. .. .. . Robannier.. .. .. .Chris Antley.. .. .. .. 30-1
a-Charlie Whittingham entry