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Racing industry should follow Lukas' lead

Is D. Wayne Lukas good for racing?

Absolutely.

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That doesn't mean everything about him is good for racing, but since when is any issue that simplistic?

There are positives and negatives to Lukas, the winning trainer in six straight Triple Crown races going into Saturday's Preakness, but the positives are far more bountiful.

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Many in his industry criticize him for being a businessman more than a horseman, for having a big ego, for promoting himself. They should step back and check out the big picture.

Racing is a troubled sport with a shrinking public, a shrinking economy and a shrinking place in the newspapers. It desperately needs visible and interesting attractions.

Lukas, 60, brings big money, attention and controversy -- the three arteries pumping life into sports in the '90s.

He also brings undeniable vision and skill.

Much like McEnroe, Rodman or Deion, he is a high-profile figure you can love or loathe depending on your world view, but, either way, he is a star who gives you a reason to care.

Racing needs five of him waging war on each other; that's what it needs.

If he has a big ego, so what? The major leagues would have to shut down if ballplayers with big egos were barred.

If he has hired an agent to promote his name and inflate his legend, so what? The grandstands are empty, for crying out loud. Someone needs to stop mumbling, get out there and shill.

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And as for the charge that he is a businessman first and a horseman second, that his success depends less on horsemanship than his ability to "recruit" high-priced bloodstock, that's petty.

Sure, he is the salesman of the century for persuading his investors to spend as much as they do on a red-ink proposition. And with 150 horses, 163 employees and tens of millions of dollars flowing through his barn, he had better perform ably as a CEO.

That doesn't mean he can't also be a horseman.

He has won nine Triple Crown races, 12 Breeders' Cup races, trained 19 class champions and led the nation's trainers in earnings in 11 of the past 12 years. He had the vision to build a "national" stable, revolutionizing the sport.

He probably has a clue, don't you think?

Some called him selfish for running five horses in the Derby, but his instincts were accurate: The more chances he took, the better the chances that one would get a perfect trip, as Grindstone did. If that's selfish, it's also just, plain smart.

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The only popular criticism of Lukas that merits a serious debate is the charge that he pushes his elite young horses too hard and shortens their careers in his rush to Triple Crown glory. Consider:

Union City broke down in the 1993 Preakness and was destroyed.

Tabasco Cat, winner of the 1994 Preakness and Belmont, was injured after his 3-year-old season and retired.

Timber Country never raced again after winning the Preakness last year.

Flanders broke down while winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall and never raced again.

Thunder Gulch, winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont, was injured last fall and retired.

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Grindstone was retired 10 days after the Derby due to an injury.

Lukas seethes at the mention of that litany of injuries, complaining that it paints an unfair picture.

"If there is something wrong with the way I do things, how come all these [owners] keep signing up for our program?" he said before the Kentucky Derby.

Indeed, many trainers are afraid to criticize him or anyone on this topic because they, too, have had horses suffer injuries and breakdowns. All trainers experience it; thoroughbreds are so fragile that only half of those registered make it to the races. Breakdowns are inevitable, and their causes represent racing's biggest gray area.

"Our horses don't stay sound that long," Nick Zito said yesterday at Pimlico. "It's a huge problem in our industry."

Still, facts are facts, and that litany of injuries is ammunition for anyone wanting to criticize Lukas.

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It is probably a good thing that not all trainers concentrate on the 3-year-old races as intently as Lukas does.

Still, he is a slam dunk as an asset for racing.

He is a sound-bite guy in a non-telegenic sport, a brash character set down amid a cast of unassuming personalities.

Sports need such larger-than-life figures in the age of the short attention span.

The fact is that he is different from any other trainer who came before him; he has reinvented the job, adding a new set of essential skills to those required around the barn.

Salesman. Accountant. Organizer. Motivator.

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"He is an innovator, and my hat is off to him," Zito said.

"I just can't be Ben Jones or Woody Stephens and sit around the barn whittling and letting tobacco juice dribble down my chin," Lukas said after winning the Derby. "I have to do it my way."

It's a new way, not the romantic, old-fashioned way, which is why he still has to defend himself after all this success.

"It gets old, having to defend yourself," he said. "But I'm not going to change. The people who don't like the way I do things had better start getting used to it."

A moribund Preakness week will come to life today, when he arrives from Kentucky with three horses and his historic winning streak.

To say that the race needs him is an understatement.

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The entire sport needs him, whether it is willing to admit that or not.

Pub Date: 5/16/96


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