Jeff Lukas walked along the outside rail heading back to the barn following Charismatic’s victory in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. The fans in the grandstand off to his right were still buzzing over the 31-1 triumph of the former $62,500 claimer.
Jeff wore a blank expression on his face, staring straight ahead. No longer the Jeff Lukas that had been the backbone of his father’s megastable, he now seemed a totally different person; perfectly functional, but devoid of the emotion he once exhibited. He never blinked, and when he spoke, the words poured out with great eloquence and fluidity, but almost in a programmed sort of way.
He was certainly well aware of what his father had just accomplished, not only winning his fourth Kentucky Derby, but having just been elected to racing’s Hall of Fame several days earlier. Jeff could no longer partake in the handling of the horses, something in which he was so proficient before that December morning in 1993 when a promising 2-year-old named Tabasco Cat got loose outside his Santa Anita barn and ran into Jeff, who had stepped in front of him, trying to slow him down. Jeff’s head hit the pavement hard, putting him in a coma for weeks, nearly killing him. He miraculously recovered, but was never the same person.
In the saddling area before that ’99 Derby, Jeff’s father, Wayne, wanting him to at least feel part of the team, allowed him to give jockey Chris Antley a leg up on Charismatic. It would mark the fourth time that Jeff gave the winning jockey a leg up before a Derby victory.
As Jeff walked past the crowd following the race, he was able to reflect on what had just happened.
“These days are something you work for just to participate in,” he said. “Then, when you’re fortunate enough to get in the winner’s circle, well, we can describe it to people, but you can’t feel it until you walk over with them through the crowd, then follow them in the infield to the winner’s circle. There’s nothing in the world like it. I know it’s great for the Lewises (owners Bob and Beverly Lewis) and Chris Antley, but with my father’s election into the Hall of Fame this year, and having this happen a few days later, it just highlights his career.”
Those were the most profound words I had heard from Jeff since I first met him in the mid-1980s. Unlike the old Jeff Lukas, he was now friendlier and more mellow, willing to engage in conversation, and in a smooth and articulate manner, with the ability to rattle off statistics and analyze races like a mathematician. It was an amazing example of how complex the human brain can be, shutting down some channels and opening up others. Unfortunately, the channels it did shut down for Jeff were the windows to his previous life as a horseman.
Looking back at the time of the accident, the Lukas barn was in the midst of the worst slump it had ever encountered. From the mid-80s to early ‘90s, Lukas had dominated racing like no trainer in history, amassing earnings that put him in another stratosphere, while winning just about every major stakes in the country, including 10 Breeders’ Cup races. It was Jeff who orchestrated the careers of many of the Lukas horses, including Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret and Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors. And it was Jeff who either hired or oversaw the team of assistants that included Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart, Mark Henning, and Randy Bradshaw.
Lukas’ raids across the country were swift and deadly, and the familiar expression became “D. Wayne off the plane.” When Twilight Agenda captured the 1991 Meadowlands Cup, it was just another ho-hum stakes victory for Team Lukas. But no one could have foreseen that Lukas would not win another grade I stakes for the next 2 1/2 years. During that time, he also took a great deal of criticism when his colt, Union City, suffered a fatal injury in the 1993 Preakness Stakes.
Later that year, he would be faced with the reality of having to continue on without his son and right-hand man -- first hoping he would live and then having to deal with the repercussions of his injury and the toll it had taken on his family and his operation.
So, how do you deal with a horse who showed great promise, but nearly killed your son, changing his life forever; a horse who was now being branded as a rogue? A horse who had come within a heartbeat of being forever known as a killer? No one could look at the colt the same way, so Lukas gathered his entire staff and told them, “Don’t blame the horse for what happened.”
Wayne knew this was his Derby horse, the horse who finally could end his grade I losing streak, which seemed incomprehensible for someone who had been so dominant for so long. He had to forget that this colt had put him through, as Wayne called it, “32 days of pure hell.”
Following Tabasco Cat’s third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Wayne had proclaimed the colt the one who would return him to his former glory, and he couldn’t desert the horse now. After all, Wayne could certainly relate to tarnished reputations.
He informed his staff, “I’m dropping out of sight and spending the next 12 weeks with the horse.”
Lukas explained a short time later, “We tried to keep that story separate, but it’s hard. We realize that this is the horse that injured Jeff, but on the other hand we didn’t want him to carry that burden. We thought he was an excellent horse and we wanted to give him every opportunity to be a good 3-year-old. Now that we know Jeff is going to be OK, with a little bit of luck Jeff will lead him over there for the Breeders’ Cup. Plus, that sonofagun owes us.”
Tabasco Cat’s co-owner, William T. Young, said, “Every time I called Wayne he was out grazing Tabasco Cat. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think anyone could have trained that horse other than Wayne Lukas. I’ve worked all my life with people, and I know when they’re interested in their job and what results they’re trying to achieve. He absolutely would not leave the horse the whole time. And for that I’m extremely grateful.”
Tabasco Cat’s rider, Pat Day, added, “Wayne got right between this horse’s ears. I don’t think anyone knows a horse any more intimately than Wayne knows Tabasco Cat. He understands exactly what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling.”
A little over a month after Jeff’s injury, Tabasco Cat won the El Camino Real Derby, then captured the San Rafael Stakes before finishing a close second in the Santa Anita Derby.
Unfortunately, the Kentucky Derby came up sloppy and Tabasco Cat couldn’t handle the surface, finishing a respectable sixth. The night before the Derby, Nick Zito, trainer of Go For Gin, had a dream that Jeff Lukas hugged him, and he took that as a good omen. The next day Go For Gin went wire-to-wire to capture the Derby by two lengths.
Two weeks later, Tabasco Cat came through for Wayne, defeating Go For Gin in the Preakness Stakes. Wayne’s losing streak was over after 2 1/2 years. He had pulled it off, writing one of the most improbable chapters in Triple Crown history.
After the race, as Wayne was unsaddling Tabasco Cat, his hands were stained with blood, as was the colt’s blinkers that he was holding. Wayne had badly punctured his thumb on the buckle of Tabasco Cat’s overgirth. It seems nothing came easy when dealing with this colt.
Joanne McNamara, Tabasco Cat’s exercise rider, who also had been the exercise rider for Union City, was in tears. “It just makes you cry,” she said. “There are so many highs and lows, but that’s this business.”
As Wayne was being interviewed, his wife Shari stood nearby beaming proudly, holding a bouquet of black-eyed susans. “This is such an exciting moment for all of us,” she said. “And it’s a big burden off Wayne’s shoulders. What makes it so gratifying is that he worked so hard with this horse. I’ve never seen him devote so much time and effort getting a horse right. This was our moment and we were ready for it.”
Three thousand miles away, Jeff and his wife Linda watched the race on TV. For two weeks the previous December, Linda had watched helplessly as her husband lay in a coma, fighting for his life. Now, six months later, she watched him cheering on the horse that nearly killed him.
“We were over a friend’s house, and when Tabasco Cat headed that other horse (Go For Gin), we all started screaming,” Linda said. “After the horse crossed the finish line, Jeff jumped up and started hugging everyone and giving high-fives. Then we broke open a bottle of champagne, and I said to myself, ‘This can’t be happening.’ Some people ask us how we can root for this horse after what he did, but they’re not horse people. We know it was an accident, and we have no hard feelings against him. It’s just such an inspirational story, and it’s not over yet.”
No, it wasn’t. Three weeks later, Tabasco Cat won the Belmont Stakes, again beating Go For Gin. Every day leading up to the race, Tabasco Cat would put on a show for photographers. Instead of giving the colt long fast works, Wayne let him loose in a sand pen. It became a daily show, and people realized watching him running, bucking, rearing, and rolling in the sand that he was not the villain most everyone perceived him to be, but a playful dynamo of a horse who did everything with great zeal and vigor. Because of Lukas’ patience and determination, Tabasco Cat’s energy level remained high, but was now controlled.
Incredibly, Wayne, who had gone so long without a grade I victory, went on to win the following year’s Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch, the Preakness with Timber Country, the Belmont Stakes with Thunder Gulch, and the following year’s Kentucky Derby with Grindstone – an amazing six consecutive Triple Crown victories; a record not likely to be equaled. And who ended the streak? Nick Zito in the Preakness with Louis Quatorze. But Wayne bounced right back by winning the Belmont Stakes with Editor’s Note, giving him seven Triple Crown victories out of eight.
Tabasco Cat nearly capped off this incredible and surreal saga with a fairy tale ending, but was beaten a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Classic by fellow 3-year-old Concern. But nothing could erase the emotions that ran rampant following the Preakness and Belmont. Sent to Japan, Tabasco Cat died at age 13. Ironically, Jeff and the horse who changed his life both died of a heart attack at an early age.
Jeff and Linda divorced several years later, and Jeff would eventually wind up working in the bank of a family friend in a small town in Oklahoma where he lived alone until his death this week at age 58. In his home were a number of framed racing photos; a reminder of another life long ago.