In The Dollar Derby, It's Lukas By A Mile

Tradition dies hard in Thoroughbred racing. Old-fashioned trainers still ship their prize horses by van and bed down with them in the stable the night before a big race. But don't expect to find the man they call "Off-the-Plane Wayne" sharing the straw with any of his ponies.

Shuttling from one high-stakes race to another in his green-and-white corporate jet, 55-year-old D. Wayne Lukas has ushered in a new era in racing. Telegenic and tanned, California-based Lukas has become the most successful trainer ever to saddle a Thoroughbred.

JET-SETTER. In his 17-year Thoroughbred career, Lukas has won nearly 2,400 races--an impressive 18% of the times he has sent horses to the starting gate--and last year became the first person to pass the $100 million mark in purses won. His probable starter in the May 4 Kentucky Derby, Corporate Report, is a long shot at best. But his four-year-old Farma Way is a candidate for Horse of the Year honors, and the $2.8 million in purses that Lukas horses have won this year is nearly three times better than any other U. S. trainer's total.

"He's the ultimate jet-set trainer," says Tom Durkin, Aqueduct Race Track announcer and racing analyst for ESPN, the cable TV sports channel. The 140 horses that Lukas trains are stabled at outposts all over the country, tended by a herd of assistants dubbed Team Lukas. When big money is on the line, Lukas flies in. "We're in it for the big races," says the former high-school basketball coach. "In football, there's the Super Bowl; in basketball, the NCAA championship. You go to the top, or you shouldn't be playing."

Racing traditionalists, though, grumble at Lukas' style of play. Forsaking slow, patient breeding, Lukas teams up with high rollers and goes for the quick score. Says Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, an Aiken (S. C.) Thoroughbred syndicator: "I've been in a lot of shootouts with him, but he always comes with bigger bullets." Last July, the trainer's $2.1 million bid for Navajo Pass was the highest for a filly at the Keeneland auction in Kentucky. He also walked away with two of the seven most expensive colts auctioned in 1989.

"He hops off that plane and looks so darn successful, you just want to be a partner with a guy like that," says Oklahoma City furniture store king L. Don Mathis, one of several dozen Lukas clients. "But the man also wins races." Pine Tree Lane, a yearling Lukas bought for Mathis in 1983 for $175,000, sold five years later for $1.25 million.

Not all Lukas customers are so satisfied, however. In 1987, the trainer and some partners formed Mid-America Racing Stables, raising $3.4 million in a public offering. Not long afterward, shareholders sued, alleging the company overstated its horses' value. Lukas, who has left the company, says only that the suits have been settled privately.

The controversy hasn't cramped Lukas' style though. With his bulging stables, he can send twice as many mounts to the gate as any other trainer. And he invests in almost every horse he trains, which helps explain the nearly $60 million he expects to rake in this year from purses, training fees, and horse sales.

Lukas works hard for the money. He starts his day at 3 a.m. and rarely takes a vacation. He was married for the third time in 1984 during Derby Week. As soon as he and his wife, Shari, exchanged vows, they trotted right over to the stables to tend to two horses that Lukas had entered in the big race. And the honeymoon? "The racetrack is my honeymoon," says Lukas.

BIG PRIZES. Even his critics admire his touch with the ponies. In the year since he began training Farma Way, the colt has gone from also-ran to winner of four of five races. Total purses: $903,350. The 1988 Derby winner, the filly Winning Colors, was a Lukas horse, as was 1985 Preakness winner Tank's Prospect (table). A three-time recipient of the Eclipse Award as best trainer, Lukas has led all trainers in races and purses won for eight years running.

This year, Lukas is chasing some especially fat purses. Chrysler Corp. is offering a $5 million bonus for the horse that accumulates the best finishes in the Triple Crown races. And Matchmaker Racing Services, an auction and breeding outfit, has put up $1.5 million for the top horses in the 10-race American Championship Racing Series for older mounts. With all that money floating around, Off-the-Plane Wayne is going to be one very frequent flyer.

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