Breeders' Cup: Lukas' hopes of a reawakening rest on Pegasus Wind

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The Independent Online

They are after the big money here on Saturday, but yesterday was more about muck than brass. A forlorn dawn of icy rain reduced the dirt track to glistening slurry, and the princely thoroughbreds splashed their way indignantly through a thousand orange puddles. But they were not the only ones deserving greater respect as racing prepares to measure its global balance of power.

A record of 18 Breeders' Cup winners is only one of many that confirm Wayne Lukas a colossus among racehorse trainers. In his pomp, in 1988, he saddled a dozen runners at the meeting: three won, another three were second. This time, he is down to one runner - a 20-1 shot in the Juvenile named Pegasus Wind.

Meanwhile his former assistant, Todd Pletcher, flew from New York yesterday to supervise no fewer than 18 candidates for Saturday. Three of them tackle Pegasus Wind in the Juvenile, including Scat Daddy, who recently broke the record set by Lukas in 1987 when giving Pletcher his 93rd stakes success of the year.

Pletcher's regard for his mentor remains such that he described that moment as "bittersweet". Unmistakably, however, apprentice has supplanted sorcerer. Lukas himself has saddled just three stakes winners this year, and his stable is down to 40 horses. Pletcher now has around 200, many owned by the Coolmore partners. Yet he has so far won only two Breeders' Cup races.

Even at 71, Lukas is such an inveterate competitor that you might expect him to be maddened by his sudden solitude. The last time the Breeders' Cup was staged here, in 2000, he was still holding court every morning to a rapt audience of reporters. Now they stride past his immaculate barn with barely a glance at the plaque listing the four Kentucky Derby winners once housed there.

"But I'm a realist," Lukas said. "We just don't have the stock we once had. I lost some key clientele through the deaths of men like Bill Young and Bob Lewis. That's not to say I can't have five or six runners next year, if the horses are good enough. But I won't ever get back to the numbers we once had, not at this time of my career."

Lukas has also lost patrons to men like Pletcher, one of a dozen former assistants now training in their own right. At the time, that all happened with his blessing. "But I wish I had some of them back now," he admits. "Having said all that, it does not frustrate me at all. I'm so proud of Todd. He has taken what we developed in the Eighties and Nineties, and taken it to another level.

"He was an extraordinary employee in every way. But he was all business, all the time. Some of the guys who worked for me, they were more colourful - but they were not as focused, not as dedicated. Surprisingly maybe, we're very close."

Certainly they are very different types, Pletcher being as sober and conventional in bearing as Lukas is charismatic. But Lukas has always cherished perspiration as well as inspiration. He tells recruits to dress smartly but not to bother with a new set of clothes, because they will be a size smaller after a month.

"I want them to tell me what they would do," he said once. "Then I tell them what they are going to do. They get five minutes of democracy. The rest is dictatorship."

Yet he creates lifelong disciples. Nine years a basketball coach, his methods seem equally effective in men or horses, with fulfilment of potential the common impetus. "Looking at what Todd has done, I'd like to think we have changed the thinking in our game a little bit," he said. "But it's not just Todd. There are 12 or 13 of those guys out there. And they might be my legacy."

Not that he has despaired of a sixth success in the Juvenile. "I've got this horse right where I want him," he said. "Nobody ever knows whether they are going to win, but I think we'll scare hell out of them before they're done."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Sunisa

(Haydock 3.20)

NB: Moves Goodenough

(Wolverhampton 6.20)