Sunday, December 14, 2014

D. Wayne Lukas and a Dash for Cash

PLANTATION, FL., December 14, 2014—All his life, Darrell Wayne Lukas of Antigo, Wisconsin has been making this mad dash toward destiny. And, at 79, the end does not appear anywhere in sight.

Dashing as ever, indeed, Lukas as familiar figure, a handsome gent framed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and, of course, the latest in shaded eyewear.

On Saturday, he acted in the Los Alamitos winners’ circle like a man who has been there before. And has he ever.

Lukas saddled the greatest horse he ever trained at Los Al, the Quarter Horse Dash For Cash, a great champion that eventually would lead to his 2007 induction into the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame—eight years after his initiation into the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.

There he stood, posing with owner Willis Horton and friends following Take Charge Brandi’s victory in the Starlet Stakes, the eighth time Lukas and one of his Thoroughbred pupils have done so.

Of course, among his myriad accomplishments, he’s probably most respected as a trainer of trainers, three of whom had a fine Saturday of their own.

I first became aware that Take Charge Brandi was highly regarded after watching her do all the dirty work yet not get the money in the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes at Saratoga.

I learned more about it when the winning trainer of Fashion Alert, prize pupil Todd Pletcher, said how he knew his filly would be in for a tough tussle because “Wayne loved his filly.”

And so we made a Saratoga Diary entry and noted it when ‘Brandi’ returned to run in the Adirondack Stakes. We bet our money and lost; she managed to beat only half the field.

We didn’t think it was one of Corey Lanerie’s finest moments on horseback but then maybe the old ball coach with a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Wisconsin was just banging on the trainer’s drum, another thing Lukas does very well.

With two consecutive excuses in our view, we bet her back with both hands when next she appeared in Churchill’s Pocahontas Stakes.

Surely this would be the day: Bred to go long on both sides of her pedigree, she was making her first start around two turns on the track where she made her winning debut.

Once again, she could only finish ahead of half the competition, only this time with no excuses. Divorce papers were filed and, this being the nature of the game, she’s not been beaten after she failed yet one more time in the Alcibiades at Keeneland.

It is generally conceded that the Santa Anita highway helped her reach the Juvenile Fillies finish line first. Next time, her style and condition fit the Delta Downs dynamics so well she was able to win two straight, making her a prohibitive favorite for the juvenile filly championship.

But Wayne does like to remind us that believes in “running them when they’re good” and he used every televised moment we saw this weekend to say so, because as far as championships are concerned, “I just don’t trust you guys.”

Parenthetically, that’s fair enough, coach, although I would like to remind you that we guys are but one of three voting organizations.

Wayne’s entrance onto the national Thoroughbred stage came on the third Saturday in May, 1980, the afternoon Codex won a controversial renewal of the Preakness Stakes.

Like the Starlet, the Preakness is a Grade 1 that’s probably more closely associated with Lukas than with any other trainer, especially after he won his sixth in 2013.

So, just when you thought Lukas’ career was over and out, he pulled himself back in.

There were many times when Lukas was overly aggressive, running them when they weren’t good, which lead to a bevy of mean spirited backstretch stories, some doubtlessly steeped in jealousy.

“It was steroids that made those two-year-old fillies look like four-year-old stud horses; that’s why he dominated all those filly stakes,” the critics said.

“He became desperate when his relationship with Gene Klein went south.”

It went on: “Divorces are expensive.” And on: “To make money he’s been forced to gamble big in the super-exotics.”

But worst of all, “that’s why he ran Union City,” the colt that suffered a fatal injury in the 1993 Preakness.

When this sport gets tough, the words of Leroy Jolley spring to mind immediately, how “the game is not played in short pants.” And neither is it played by choir boys.

Good, bad, indifferent, love him, or hate him, Wayne Lukas has the instincts of horse training genius, a visionary of the first order.

He taught everyone how to win stakes races in bunches all over the country by running horses right off the plane; showed rival trainers what their shedrows should look like; demonstrated how much cooler horses looked when adorned in a white bridle.

And he mentored human pupils that became trainers at the highest levels of the sport, three of whom also had big Saturdays.

Kiaran McLaughlin unleashed a first-time-starting juvenile at Aqueduct, Ocean Knight, a Curlin colt that showed a professional turn of foot to break maiden while geared down at the end.

And Mark Hennig, who won the G3 Sugar Swirl with Merry Widow and finished second in the South Beach Stakes a few Gulfstream races later with Baffle Me.

And, of course, Todd Pletcher, who won five races, three stakes, and a second to ‘Brandi’ in the Starlet with Feathered.

Fittingly for Lukas, his career would come full circle when he won the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow. He already had won four Eclipse titles as outstanding trainer; the Oxbow incident earned him a fifth, the Eclipse Award of Merit.

“When they start giving you awards, they are trying to get you to retire,” Lukas said in his acceptance speech, before adding this:

“I’m not retiring. You young trainers better get up a little more early in the morning now. We’re coming after you…we’re coming after you with a vengeance.”

Pretty much the way he’s approached everything since the coach left a high school class room behind.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Running for His Life

One of the best things about this game is the people you meet along the way. Bill Mooney is one of those people. We've known each know for nearly four decades and the first trait that becomes apparent when you speak with him is his classy demeanor; the respectful, measured responses, the thoughtfulness, the passion he has for the sport. We cannot be considered close friends, but whenever our paths would cross in press boxes across the country, in Saratoga especially, it always was and remains a pleasure: Call it a pari-mutuel admiration society. This week, Bill sent an e-mail to his turf writing brothers and sisters, one which I'm certain, considering the message within, forced all of us to check our stride and think, the way his copy always does. I asked Bill if he wouldn't mind sharing his thoughts with the HRI audience, that it might make a difference in the life of some racing fan who knows what Bill's days are like now and how they might approach life's random fragility and reckless abandon.

By Bill Mooney

The doctors took out my right kidney on Tuesday. The kidney and cancerous mass that engulfed it weighed 20 pounds. I saw the pictures of how it had looked on the ultrasound a few days after the surgery.

To me, it resembled the Hindenburg exploding.

How could a person be walking around for so long with such a tumor inside him and not know it? Believe me, I’m clueless. I had no symptoms. The surgeon speculates that the tumor may have been slowly growing for 10 years, and my body kept adjusting to it. The fact that I had long kept in shape – good diet, lots of long-distance walking, and weight lifting – was also a factor in disguising its presence.

I was told, post-surgery, that they got that one huge infestation in its entirety and that luckily it had not spread into the colon, liver, or bone structures. It has spread elsewhere, however, as kidney cancer tends to do – to my thyroid, to a lymph gland on the side of my neck, and there are spots on my lungs.

There’s also a small cancerous tumor (about the size of a finger nail) in my left kidney. That will be taken care of sometime during the next few weeks via a procedure that “freezes it,” or in effect burns it out. This will involve outpatient surgery, which means I won’t be in the hospital overnight.

An MRI [brain scan] was conducted last Saturday. As I write this, it is the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t want to know the results. I would prefer to wait a little longer, eat some leftover turkey and dressing, and drink a glass of red wine before I find out.

My discharge from Baptist Health Hospital was Sunday. It is standard hospital procedure, when a patient has had major surgery so recently, to have him leave by way of a wheelchair. I refused and told (my wife) Karen and the hospital staff I was determined to walk out.

“It’s three very long corridors,” said Karen, looking at me apprehensively. Yes, but I had walked those corridors when I entered the hospital five days earlier and I was going to walk them now in the opposite direction. And not by using a thousand baby steps, but striding.

So, I did. And now I’m home. Many decisions must be made in the upcoming weeks. The cancer doctor has told us that without further treatment, maybe I’ll live for a year; with treatment, maybe longer. He’s going to start me on minor chemotherapy treatments at first, see what happens, and go from there.

He’s talked about my getting involved in clinical trials at the Vanderbilt University Medical School in Tennessee, and by doing that at least I’d make myself useful. I will not “fry: myself with chemo; neither will I turn myself into some sort of medical guinea pig in a desperate effort to prolong my life.

But I am willing to do some experimenting. I like the way [this doctor] thinks and handles himself. Karen likes him, too. I am a terminal cancer patient – there is no avoiding that hard fact. Termination can be delayed, though, while experiencing a reasonable quality of life at the same time.

One thing the good doctor has stressed is the necessity of keeping in the best physical condition I can. This means getting back to my walking routine, and working my way up to miles, not yards. Well, on Monday of this week, my first full day home, I walked 200 yards. My third day home, I walked one full mile. On Thanksgiving Day I walked two miles. My right side was burning when I finished. This afternoon, I plan to walk further; and tomorrow, further still.

The doctor wants me to eventually get back to doing regular outdoor chores such as raking leaves and shoveling snow. And I will. He wants me to get back to light weight lifting.

This morning, I pulled out a ten-pound weight from under my bed.

I sat there just staring at it for a few minutes. Then I laid down flat on my back on the floor, took the weight, and began lifting it. Ten repetitions. Then ten more. Then ten more after that. Prior to surgery, I could easily bench press a hundred pounds. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that again. But I bet I can reach fifty.

There’s been so much for the mind to process in such a short period. I’m writing this on November 28. On October 28 I had no idea I had kidney cancer. The following day, I got an email from Nephrology Associates of Lexington, informing me that “one new item” had been added to my record. I clicked on to it, and the item consisted of four words: “Diagnosis: Renal Cell Carcinoma.”

On November 4 I was told the entire right kidney had to come out. On November 11 I was told my cancer was Stage Four, and that if the kidney didn’t come out immediately I had only six months remaining in my life.

A tornado of activity ensued: getting power of attorney and living will documents (both are legal requirements prior to major surgery in Kentucky); getting a regular will written; informing family, friends and co-workers. Making arrangements to have the house and property cared for. And filling out forms – repetitive forms, voluminous forms – for the various medical practices involved.

Late on the afternoon of November 13, five days before the surgery, I got a phone call from the cardiology department at Baptist Health. I was told that I had never had a heart stress test, and because of that the surgery could not occur.

Could I get a heart stress test now? No, I was told, they were all booked up. I told the lady that, literally, my life was at stake.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.” At 11:10 the following morning, I was informed that a cancellation had occurred and if I got there in 20 minutes, I could do the stress test. I was there at 11:29.

But then I was told that if I had consumed any caffeine during the past 24 hours I couldn’t take the test. And so I lied to them. “Oh, no, I don’t drink coffee, never do,” I said, knowing all the while that with each delayed day, that mass engulfing my right kidney was poisoning my body all the more.

They wanted to conduct a nuclear stress test, without putting me on a treadmill. But I knew that work on a treadmill helps neutralize the presence of caffeine. I casually said (while hiding the panic within me), “oh, please, I’d like to do the treadmill. I’m in good shape. I walk; lift weights.”

I received the clearance to do so. And on that treadmill I literally ran for my life. Faster, faster, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine,” I kept telling the nurses. Friday evening, the precise time was 8:08 p.m., the cardiologist left a message on my answering machine. The results of the stress test were “good,” he said, and I “could go ahead with the surgery.”

Amidst the chaos, there were moments of calm. They would most notably occur at 4 a.m. when I’d wake up and in the darkness I could hear the rustle of the wind in the branches of the tree next to the bedroom window, and the horn from a railroad engine sounding in the distance. I’d roll on my right side, and put my arm around Karen, and from her low breathing and the warmth coming from her I’d gain strength.

And I would think to myself, “It is okay. I can do this.”

The night before the surgery, in the TV room, just before going to bed, we turned out the lights and put on Karen’s favorite song, Fields of Gold, sung by Sting. And we danced to it. We danced to it twice.

And I learned something else during the days immediately prior to the surgery. Yes, it’s flattering to be a multiple Eclipse Award winner. And to be a Tony Ryan Award winner. And especially to be a Walter Haight Award recipient, because that was something bestowed by my peers.

But, much more importantly, I learned that many, many people believe I’ve impacted their lives over the years. People inside the racing industry; people outside the racing industry. Colleagues, friends, relatives – recalling to me so many things, so many little favors that I had thought nothing of at the time or had long forgotten. And this has brought to me another realization – while I have contributed to the lives of others, I so dearly wish I had done more.

Did I pray? Yep. I still do. Every night before bedtime, I kneel down and ask God for strength, wisdom, and guidance. But I do not ask God to spare my life. (Others may do that for me, if they wish, but I don’t.) And not once, not even for a few seconds, have I gone through the, “Why Me? Why is this happening to me?” routine. I view that as a waste of time and a waste of breath.

Sunrises have never looked so beautiful. Sunsets have never looked so beautiful. Even cloudy, blustery days in late November have never looked so beautiful, even with the trees barren of leaves.

And Karen has never looked so beautiful. “This is going to be a big roller coaster ride,” she has said several times. And no one knows that better than her. Karen’s late husband, to whom she was married for 34 years, was diagnosed with cancer during their 32nd year of marriage. Two years later, on his 55th birthday, he died. Karen’s been through this before.

This morning, I got on the scale. Weight: 147 pounds. Body mass: 22.3. I’m 67 years old and there’s nothing wrong about those numbers for a man my age. I’ve got 29 staples in my right side – they were scheduled to come out Tuesday.

I’ve still got some time. Exactly how much? I don’t know. But I’ve pretty much got two goals left: to keep myself as physically and emotionally strong as possible and to enrich the lives of others. The latter can often be accomplished with a few kind words.

By that, I mean giving encouragement to a young turf writer. Believe me, folks, the new generation of turf scribes is loaded with talent. And I know that for a fact, because I watch them at work and read their material.

I also mean expressions of gratitude and respect to members of the older generation who practice the craft. You’ll never know how many times, how many hundreds of times, I’ve read the work of the colleagues from my own generation and thought, “God, I wish I could think that clearly, I wish I could write that well.”

And keep in mind, if I should direct some encouragement or gratitude your way, it will be stated with 100% sincerity. That’s one of the benefits of being a terminal cancer patient. There’s never a need to fool anyone. I can forevermore say exactly what I think. By giving strength to others, I gain strength for myself. Please don’t deny me the dignity of doing that.

I’ve never been to Rome. I plan to take Karen there this April. I’ve never been to Del Mar. Or to Portland Meadows. Or to Yankee Stadium. Maybe I’ll finally get to these places. But, most of all, I want to dance a few more times to Fields of Gold with Karen. No, not a few more times – lots of times.

I hope.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Emulating Yonkers Raceway Would Be Good for Thoroughbred Business

PLANTATION, FL, November, 20, 2014--Remember watching the start of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic over and over, trying to pick up exactly when and where the horse beneath #7 orange saddle-cloth crashed into the one wearing the black #6?

In the simulcast era, colored saddle cloths have become indispensable when trying to decipher which of the two horses battling head to head two the wire 10 lengths behind the runaway leader are going to win the photo.

Was it the horse racing on the inside or the outside? Did I win the trifecta? Are those the horses I used to complete the super?

Colored saddle cloths certainly have made it easier for fans and bettors to enjoy horse racing and, for that, Thoroughbred racing owes a debt of gratitude to those who work on the Harness side of the street.

The Standardbred folks introduced the innovation, Thoroughbred racing followed, altering the original color scheme so that the saddle cloths wouldn't match exactly--as if product differentiation were completely necessary.

There has been some talk in Thoroughbred circles recently about using tote boards that display the precise win payoff and a range of prices that the second and third runners-up would pay, depending on the odds.

Harness racing already has been there, down that. A tote board displaying actual payoffs was in use, "where it all began" but now defunct Roosevelt Raceway, a half century ago. Yes, contemporaries, it has been that long.

While it might have existed earlier, the popularity of importing international races into the U.S. got the most visibility with the advent of the Dubai World Cup.

Watching Cigar win the 1996 inaugural from the Hialeah press box was an indelible moment, as it was when Silver Charm got the job done two years later.


But beyond major events such as the Breeders' Cup, Thoroughbred racing has done very little exporting its races--the kind of product available on non-event days--overseas.

Well, the Standardbred game again stole the march in innovation idea when Yonkers Raceway began exporting its signal to France at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings as Parisians began thinking about supper time.

Not only did Yonkers export five races on an experimental basis that will run four more Sundays but they did so by catering to the betting audience they were anxiously trying to attract.

All five races were on the trot, and all five were lengthened to 1-1/4 miles with larger fields, conditions more familiar to European horseplayers.

The numbers were remarkable, Europeans wagering 1.75 million Euros on Nov. 9 and 1.81 million one week later on the specially tailored “French race cards."

The second week, Yonkers raised the profile by featuring handicapping insights harness race great Mike Lachance, the European audience not only including French bettors but those from Austria, Basque, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Holland, Luxemburg, Malta and Switzerland, as well.

The Sunday morning experiment has been an unqualified success. The first week, nearly $500,000 was bet on the five European style races. Last Sunday, $450,000 was bet on the first race alone.

FOLLOW THE LEADER: It seems like the time is right for Thoroughbred racing to follow the lead of their Standardbred brethren once again, to see what the future might hold. Consider:

U.S. tracks such as Arlington Park, Belmont Park and Gulfstream, featuring either multi-positional inner rails or two or more turf courses, could export five turf races overseas.

If one did, the recommendation here would be to resist the greed factor and limit or entirely exclude horizontal wagers, giving the experiment its best chance to churn the race by race handle.

American racetracks, in addition to its standard vertical wagers, might offer, say, one lowest possible takeout Pick 5 with a 25-Cent minimum, giving Europeans horseplayers incentive to bet-and-breakfast with this exotic enticement.

If offered as a special "promotional wager experiment," tracks might be able to get around pari-mutuel takeout restrictions mandated by their states. And, please, no carryover jackpot wagers.

Either way, some enterprising American Thoroughbred racetrack might learn that exporting Euro-centric grass races can result in attracting old and new audiences alike.

It seems like it might be worth a try and, just maybe, a late Sunday morning first-race post might spark state-side business, too.

Written by John Pricci

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