Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of a memorable Run for the Roses in which trainer D. Wayne Lukas won the first of his four Derby crowns and Winning Colors became the third — and latest — filly to beat the boys. Lukas recalls how Winning Colors built a four-length lead on the far turn, then held on by a neck. Lukas, 77, plans to send Oxbow and Will Take Charge to the starting gate at Churchill Downs in quest of his fifth Derby win.
I bought Winning Colors as a yearling in 1986. There was a four-foot wall at the barn outside, and the horses would walk around on the other side. All I could see of her at first was her head, neck, top line and hip. I thought to myself, “Wow. If she’s got all four legs pointed in the right direction when she comes around the corner, we don’t have to look anymore. My heart was pounding.”
When she started dominating the fillies as a 2-year-old, we started thinking maybe we would try her against the boys. We got these grandiose ideas of running her in the Kentucky Derby. We had felt like she might be the best of her age group in her gender. Then we thought maybe she was the best racehorse, period, after we won the Santa Anita Derby by 7 1/2 lengths.
We had an offer to purchase her the week of the Derby. At that point, it was a world-record offer. I owned 35 percent, and that would be a lot of money for a trainer. I told (primary owner) Gene Klein we wouldn’t be able to run her in our silks or in our name if we sold her. He said, “Can we win this thing?” I told him yes.
There might have been a little undercurrent (of criticism) about us running in the Derby because she was a filly, but they wouldn’t say anything openly. This is a tradition-bound sport. With the Ruffian deal years prior, that was highlighted a little bit. But we had no qualms. I’ve had four Derby winners, and seconds and thirds, and this was the most confident I’ve been.
We didn’t pull any punches with the race (strategy). We ran her out onto the lead right away and said to the others, “If you think you can stay with us, come on.”
She got into that high cruising speed and got really comfortable. Whether the lead was diminishing through the stretch, well, that was understandable. The bottom line was, she was the only one who got her picture taken (in the winner’s circle).
When she was a 2-year-old, all of my boys (the grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders at the Lukas stable) had asked me, “Boss, are you thinking about running her in the Derby?” They went down to Caliente in Tijuana and bet ($2,000 at odds of 100-1 several months before the Derby.) I think they darn near broke the book. To collect, they had to send three guys down to get the money. They didn’t trust sending one guy because they might never see him again. They got new cars, TVs, refrigerators.
This win ranks right up there in my career. It could get to No. 1 if I sat down and analyzed it. To get a Derby win, you’re never guaranteed it. As a horse trainer, you need to put that honor on your resume if you want to be in the higher echelon.