ELMONT, N.Y. - Bob Lewis called D. Wayne Lukas on the telephone Wednesday, hours before horses were entered for the Belmont Stakes.
Lewis, who owns Commendable with his wife, Beverly, had a question about the wisdom of entering the horse in the race. He asked Lukas, who trains the colt, "Hey, coach, you sure we're doing the right thing?"
Lukas, the modern master of Triple Crown races, replied, "Absolutely."
Yesterday, on a sizzling afternoon on Long Island when temperatures soared into the 90s, Lukas proved correct when Commendable scored a shocking upset to win the $1 million Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
Commendable had won only one of seven races before the Belmont. He had finished 17th in the Kentucky Derby. Yet Lukas had not lost faith in the horse he'd predicted last fall would perhaps be his top Triple Crown contender.
At odds of 18-1, Commendable wore down the pacesetter, Hugh Hefner, midway around the final turn and then held off the late-charging Aptitude and Unshaded for a commanding, 1 1/2 -length victory.
The victory was Lukas' 13th in Triple Crown races, trying "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons for most wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Fitzsimmons recorded his baker's dozen from 1930 to 1959. Lukas, 64, won his first Triple Crown race in Baltimore with Codex in the 1980 Preakness.
In the days leading to the Belmont, Lukas downplayed his chances with Commendable. After celebrating the colt's performance in the winner's circle, Lukas still refrained from taking excessive credit.
"We didn't have any grandiose ideas that we could come in here and overwhelm the field," Lukas said. "But when I looked at the field, when I looked at the abilities of the horses in the race, I grew more confident that we could at least have something to say about the outcome."
Lukas said the defections of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners had nothing to do with his running Commendable in the Belmont.
Fusaichi Pegasus, who won the Derby, sustained a minor hoof injury last weekend, and Red Bullet, the Preakness winner, missed the Belmont when his owner and trainer decided he needed a rest.
Lukas was one of the few in racing who never bought the hype that Fusaichi Pegasus was the second coming of Secretariat or that Red Bullet was anything more than, in his words, "a horse for the day."
"I thought we had an excellent bunch of 3-year-olds," Lukas said. "But I didn't see a horse we could put on a pedestal."
Referring to the Derby and Preakness winners, he said, "I wish they'd been in here. I think we'd have beaten any of them. I just think we had an awfully good horse today."
Commendable didn't seem to strain in beating this undistinguished group of 3-year-olds. Of the 11 starters, none had won a Grade I race. Only one, Postponed, had won his last race.
Hugh Hefner, the speedy long shot, exploded into the lead as expected. He carried the field into the far turn, where Commendable, striding confidently under jockey Pat Day, challenged along the outside and then, midway around the sweeping bend, claimed the lead.
He was never challenged down the stretch. Far back early, Aptitude, the 8-5 favorite, roared along the rail for second. Unshaded, the long-striding gelding, rallied seven-wide for third. Wheelaway claimed fourth.
After the race, Unshaded suffered a mild attack of heat exhaustion. He was hosed down and treated by track veterinarians. He walked back to the barn under his own power.
Commendable paid $39.60 to win. He headed a $213 exacta, $1,310 trifecta and $9,315 superfecta. His time of 2 minutes 31.19 seconds for the 1 1/2 miles was extremely slow. Lemon Drop Kid, last year's winner, completed the course in 2 minutes 27.88 seconds.
For the Lewises, who bought Commendable as a yearling at Keeneland for $575,000, the victory helped soothe the sting of past Belmonts.
Last year, their Charismatic broke his leg trying to win the Belmont and a Triple Crown after sweeping the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. (Charismatic survived and stands at stud in Kentucky.) In 1997, the Lewises' Silver Charm faltered in the Belmont, also attempting to win a Triple Crown.
"The heartaches and trials of our previous runs in the Belmont ... a lot of that is erased by this victory today," Bob Lewis said.
When Lewis called Lukas for reassurance about Commendable's appearance in the Belmont, he wasn't the only one short on confidence. Day, the colt's jockey, said he decided to ride the son of Gone West solely because of Lukas.
"To be honest and candid, I came up here based on Wayne's confidence," said Day, a winner of three Belmonts. "One thing I've learned over the years, you can't count Mr. Lukas out in one of these major fixtures."
But once on horseback a mile into the race, Day said, his confidence swelled. Commendable had relaxed behind Hugh Hefner and effortlessly surged into the lead.
"Going into the far turn and then at the head of the stretch, I hadn't asked him for anything," Day said. "I didn't know for sure exactly what response I was going to get when I called on him.
"He responded. I felt at that point they were going to have to come running and running hard if they were going to catch him."
Lukas said he never gave up on Commendable despite six straight losses because the colt continually flashed brilliant speed training in the mornings.
"He was an extremely gifted horse from the first time we ever breezed him," Lukas said. "He works faster than most of our horses ever do. I just needed to see in the afternoon what I see every week in the morning. ...
"I never lost faith. I think that's one of the strongest attributes a trainer - not only me, anybody - can have. You have to believe in your horse. ... I think what happened today, you saw what I've been seeing all along. He put it all together today."
Lukas' lucky 13th
Commendable's Belmont win yesterday gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas his 13th win in Triple Crown races:
Kentucky Derby (4)
Winning Colors ..............1988
Thunder Gulch ..............1995
Tank's Prospect ..............1985
Tabasco Cat ..................1994
Timber Country ...............1995
Tabasco Cat ...................1994
Thunder Gulch .................1995
Editor's Note ..................1996