John Clay

John Clay: Baffert, Lukas aim to spike the dry spell

LOUISVILLE — The bigfoots are back.

"Baffert and I were talking about that the other day," said D.W.L.

Baffert would be Bob Baffert, the still-cool 57-year-old Californian with the silver hair and the dark sunglasses and the three Kentucky Derby trophies in his case back home.

D.W.L. would be D. Wayne Lukas, the smart, tanned, impeccably neat 74-year-old legend who four times has entered the Churchill Downs winner's circle and draped that blanket of roses over the back of a horse he trained.

"You know, we all run horses in the Derby that maybe if we had total control and owned them, we wouldn't," said Lukas this week. "But if W.T. Young comes to you (in 1989) and says, 'Wayne, we're going to run Shy Tom,' you say, well, 'I'm gonna do everything we can to try and win it,' but in your heart you know that's probably a real long shot."

After all, Lukas has started 43 horses in the Derby, more than any other trainer.

"When you've been in this thing for 30 years you get realistic," said Lukas.

Baffert has started 18 horses in the Derby. "I've come here with horses that you're hoping something might happen, and it didn't happen," said Baffert last week.

But this year?

"This year, this is the best horse I've brought here since Charismatic," said Lukas of 12-1 shot Dublin.

This year, Baffert has the favorite, in 3-1 shot Lookin At Lucky.

It's been quite a dry spell for two of the best Derby trainers of all time. Baffert's last win came in 2002 with War Emblem. Oh, sure, Baffert was second last year with Pioneerof the Nile, probably should have won the thing had not that darned rail-hugging Calvin Borel turned in a magic ride to lead Mine That Bird to an upset victory. Before that, however, Baffert's previous five entrants went 17, 16, 9, 17 and 14.

This year, with an injury removing Eskendereya from the fray, Baffert's 2-year-old champion is now the solid favorite, even though the son of Smart Strike drew the rail Wednesday. Plus, Baffert's Plan B, Southwest Stakes winner Conveyance, is a respectable 12-1.

"I felt real good last year about Pioneerof the Nile," Baffert said. "But these two are legitimate horses."

It's been awhile since Lukas has had a Derby entrant he could call legitimate. In fact, he's had just four entrants since his Proud Citizen ran second in 2002. Of the four, Ten Cents a Shine ran best, eighth in 2003. Since then, Lukas has finished 11th, 18th and 19th last year with Flying Private.

This year is different. Though Dublin hasn't won a race since taking the Hopeful last year at Saratoga, he keeps hitting the board. He was second in the Southwest Stakes to Conveyance, was third in the Rebel won by Lookin At Lucky and third in the Arkansas Derby, behind winner Line of David and runner-up Super Saver.

"He's got a long stride; he's a stayer," said Lukas of the son of Afleet Alex. "I don't think he'll have a bit of trouble with the mile and a quarter. He's a big, powerful horse that's got tactical speed. He fits all of my parameters of a good one, a really good one. He's the best-looking horse I've ever led over there."

Lukas has led some good ones over there, including Derby winners Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in '95, Grindstone in '96 and Charismatic in '99. But of late there's been a feeling that maybe the game has passed him by, that he doesn't get the same quality of horses as in years past.

"We lost some key people in Mr. Young and Bob Lewis," said Lukas of two of his high-profile owners who have passed away in recent years. "I don't worry about not having one."

This year, he thinks he has one.

"I feel very comfortable," Lukas said, "probably more so than I have in a long time."

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