Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Haskin's Belmont Report: The D. Wayne Reign

By Steve Haskin

Remember when D. Wayne Lukas won an amazing six Triple Crown races in a row and seven of eight from 1994 to 1996? Remember when Lukas sent out one of the most improbable Belmont Stakes winners ever in Commendable? Well, before you dismiss Lukas’ pair of longshots this year, remember who you’re dealing with.

Lukas’s two horses, Flying Private and Luv Gov, have a combined lifetime record of two wins in 23 starts, and both obviously are eligible for a nonwinners of one allowance race. So, why does Lukas, always the eternal optimist, have that same Cheshire cat grin this year he did when he brought Commendable here?

First off, because he’s Wayne Lukas and he loves being in this kind of situation. Second, he is, and always has been, a winner. In his heyday, he made winning Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown races seem mundane. Now, in his 70s, Lukas has enjoyed cutting back his stable after losing most of his major owners and seemingly has learned to appreciate some of the smaller gifts racing has to offer. He was happy to have finished second in the Kentucky Oaks, beaten 20 1/4 lengths by Rachel Alexandra. He was thrilled with Flying Private’s fourth-place finish in the Preakness at odds of 25-1.

The new Wayne Lukas now enjoys people more and being a good will ambassador for racing. At Oaklawn Park, every time he’d win a race and headed to the winner’s circle, he would choose a child, usually around 6 years olds, and take him or her into the winner’s circle to be part of the celebration. He would assure the parents he would take good care of their child. He then would arrange for the track photographer to make up eight prints of the winner’s circle photo for the parents to pick up later in the afternoon. After a while, families would be lined up near the winner’s circle after a Lukas victory, hoping he would choose their child.

So, here is Lukas back at Belmont, the scene of four Belmont Stakes victories – with Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Editor’s Note, and Commendable. This time, he is looking to score another Commendable-like upset, and judging from the way Flying Private and Luv Gov look, you might not want to dismiss both of them too quickly or throw them out of the trifectas and superfectas. They have too much history behind them, hidden under that white cowboy hat.

If you don’t think Lukas is capable of winning or at least having a say in the Belmont with a horse who is 1-for-12 and a horse who is 1-for-11 and together have finished out of the money 13 times, don’t forget that Commendable was 1-for-7, finishing out of the money six times in a row, and coming off a 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 26 lengths. Up to that point, no horse had ever run in the Kentucky Derby and then won the Belmont in his next start. Now it’s done all the time. Another Lukas breakthrough.

Flying Private has been the proverbial hard-luck horse who rarely has seen a clean trip in his career. Even in his fifth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, he displaced, and was only beaten six lengths.

In the Preakness, he was moving stride for stride with Mine That Bird. Both horses went for the same hole that wasn’t really there in the first place. Mine That Bird was able to get through when Pioneerof the Nile drifted out, but Alan Garcia on Flying Private had to alter course to inside after steadying. With a big, long-striding horse like Flying Private, the last thing you want is to have to stop riding the horse and then re-start the engine. It took a while for Flying Private to get back in gear and he closed steadily to finish fourth, beaten only four lengths.

As for Luv Gov, His maiden victory on Derby Day was spectacular following three seconds, including one to Summer Bird. Throw out his 2-year-old form, as he was suffering from an irregular heartbeat that has now been cleared up. Although he finished eighth in the Preakness after running 11th the whole race, he didn’t run that badly, coming off a maiden race. He had to alter course several times in the stretch, being forced wider each time. He has to make up 7 3/4 lengths on Mine That Bird, and although he might not be ready to do that, there is no reason to think he won’t show big improvement with a clean trip and having the experience of the Preakness behind him.

As mentioned, both horses have looked great in the mornings, and Luv Gov was full of himself Tuesday, trying to rear a couple of times before being allowed to break off into his gallop.

So, with apologies to those not familiar with the Spanish American War, when it comes time to look for some big-price horses to throw in your exotics, “Remember the Wayne!”

Sounds from the Belmont media luncheon at MSG:

Calvin Borel on his guarantee that Mine That Bird will win the Belmont: “We will win. I’m gonna win it for Chip. I owe him that. I see another (Kentucky) Derby race with the same style he won that race.”

Borel,when asked if the distance had been a mile and a half, would Mine That Bird have caught Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness? “I have no comment.”

Kiaran McLaughlin on why he’s so confident in Charitable Man’s chances: “I’ve been coming across as cocky, but I’m not cocky at all. I’m just saying he’s been doing great, he’s two-for-two over the track, and he’s three-for-three on dirt. Do I need to keep going?”

Dunkirk’s rider John Velazquez’ opening words: “I want to start by saying to the other riders, ‘Stay on the rail.’”

The wild adventures of Chip Woolley continue: Before he left for New York, his now famous pickup truck was broken into outside his Louisville hotel. Stolen was the GPS system that got him to Grand Prairie, Louisville and Baltimore, and are you ready for this? Mine That Bird’s Jockey Club papers. That might wind up being worth more than the GPS.

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