The Preakness can now begin.
D. Wayne Lukas is in town.
The man who first burst on the Triple Crown scene at Pimlico Race Course 15 years ago -- and won his first Triple Crown event, the Preakness, with his first starter, Codex -- is now synonymous with American racing's classic thoroughbred events.
In this current generation of trainers, no one has come to dominate the Triple Crown like Lukas.
This is his 16th consecutive year with a starter in a Triple Crown race. He comes into Saturday's Preakness with a unique opportunity to tie a series record.
If Thunder Gulch should duplicate his Kentucky Derby win of 12 days ago in the Preakness, it will be the fourth consecutive win in a Triple Crown race for Lukas. Lucien Laurin was the last trainer to achieve such a feat. He won the 1972 Belmont Stakes with Riva Ridge and followed that the next year by sweeping the Triple Crown with Secretariat.
"Another guy's got four," the ever competitive Lukas said yesterday, as he surveyed his pair of Preakness starters, Thunder Gulch and Timber Country, fresh off the plane from Louisville, Ky., and looking fit and eager enough to head straight for the Preakness paddock. "Five in a row would mean much more. It's the fifth one I want."
Lukas' mastery of the Triple Crown is not without precedence. In a total of 50 starts in the Triple Crown series, he has won six times-- two Kentucky Derbies, three Preaknesses, and a Belmont Stakes.
Every couple of decades, it seems a trainer, backed by a particularly wealthy or knowledgeable owner or breeder, creates such a dynasty.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, James Rowe Sr., who won the Kentucky Derby with the filly Regret, and the Belmont Stakes with such horses as Colin and Peter Pan, won 10 Triple Crown races.
Then in the mid-1900s came the father and son duo of Ben A. and Jimmy Jones. They trained for Calumet Farm, saddling such horses as Whirlaway and Citation, and together won 16 Triple Crown races.
Sunny "Jim" Fitzsimmons, trainer of Gallant Fox, Nashua and Bold Ruler for the Woodward family and Wheatley Stable, was equally as impressive. He won three Kentucky Derbies, four Preaknesses and six Belmont Stakes.
Then, as recently, as the 1980s, Woody Stephens, now retired, won five consecutive Belmont Stakes from 1982 through 1986, also won two Kentucky Derbies and a Preakness for an overall count of eight wins in the Triple Crown.
But after a brief slump a couple of years ago following the death of Eugene Klein, one of his most supportive patrons, Lukas, 59, just now seems to be hitting his stride.
Lukas, who had been honing his skills and had accomplished just about everything there was to accomplish as a nationally renowned quarter-horse trainer, arrived on the thoroughbred scene right after the "era of the great horses" in the 1970s. Such runners as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid dominated the decade. Lukas shared the 1980s with Stephens and now controls the '90s.
How does he do it?
Part of it, he said, yesterday, is "by keeping score.
"I look at who leads in money won, who's got the most championships, who dominates each division. I want to keep score."
Even during his slump when he faded to sixth in the national
standings after leading the list for 10 consecutive years, he remained positive.
"Two years ago, some people were ready to knock us out of the business," he said. "But I felt we'd get back on top. I knew what got us there in the first place. You have to draft the right plan and play smart."
To do that Lukas has developed a strategy that combines owners with deep pockets from the best of both worlds.
His main suppliers of horseflesh include a prominent Kentucky breeder, William T. Young, and a relatively new owner, Robert Lewis of Newport Beach, Calif., who has taken Klein's place and buys select yearlings.
Together they are Lukas' one-two punch. Someone like Michael Tabor, who owns Thunder Gulch, and about four other promising 2-year-olds, is a bonus.
Young maintains a 1,500-acre farm in the Kentucky Bluegrass, owns 40 broodmares and stands Storm Cat, who ranked second only to Broad Brush last year among leading U.S. stallions. He's also a man who bred a dozen stakes winners in 1994, including juvenile filly champion, Flanders; double classics winner, Tabasco Cat, in partnership with David Reynolds; and two other Grade I winners.
Lewis laughed and said he simply follows Lukas around the sales at Keeneland, Ky., and Saratoga, N.Y., and watches him "spend my money. But I'd say we've met with reasonable success."
Among the first group of yearlings Lukas selected for Lewis include 1994 2-year-old champion Timber Country, which he owns in partnership with Young and Graham Beck of Gainesway Farm; and Serena's Song, current leader among the nation's 3-year-old fillies.
"Obviously, it's been a great association," Lewis said, "and I have extreme confidence in him."
That confidence shows in Lewis' current lineup of 2-year-olds. He owns 21 of them. A filly, Miraloma, has won her first start at Hollywood Park and could be another Serena's Song.
There's a Seattle Slew colt called Dr. Caton. The horse is named after the neurosurgeon who helped save the life of Lukas' son, Jeff, after he was trampled last year in a training accident at Santa Anita Park.
Lukas acknowledged yesterday that he's loaded with talented 2-year-olds.
Already the Lukas outfit is looking ahead to Triple Crown 1996. It's the same sort of confidence Lukas displayed by chartering his Preakness plane to carry his runners from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore on April 1, a month before the Kentucky Derby had even been run.
After Lukas won the Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch, Lukas joked that he hoped he's still young enough to break Ben Jones' record of six Derby victories.
But, of course, he's not joking.
D. Wayne Lukas is here to stay.
TRIPLE CROWN RECORDS AT A GLANCE
& D. WAYNE LUKAS' RECORD
Race , Starters, Wins
Kentucky Derby, 26, 2 (Winning Colors, 1988; Thunder Gulch, 1995)
Preakness, 16, 3 (Codex, 1980; Tank's Prospect, 1985; Tabasco Cat, 1994)
Belmont, 8, 1 (Tabasco Cat, 1994)
Totals, 50, 6
MOST STARTERS, WINNERS BY A TRAINER
Race, No. of starters, No. of winners
Kentucky Derby, D. Wayne Lukas (26), Ben A. Jones (6)
Preakness, Max Hirsch (19), Robert Wyndham Walden (7)
Belmont*, John Campo (10) James Rowe Sr. (8) Leroy Jolley (10)
*-Belmont record for number of starters only available since 1972.
LONGEST WIN STREAK BY A TRAINER
Record-holder: Lucien Laurin (4)
Year, Horse, Race(s)
1972, Riva Ridge, Belmont
1973, Secretariat, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont