The death this week of Winning Colors, at the age of 23, made rightful headlines around the sporting world. After all, only three fillies have been good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, and Winning Colors was the most recent, in 1988, when her opposition included champion colts Forty Niner and Risen Star.
Moreover, at the end of her comprehensive 3-year-old campaign, Winning Colors came within a head bob of handing Personal Ensign her first loss in an unforgettable renewal of the Breeders' Cup Distaff, held also that year at Churchill Downs. She was a shadow of herself at age 4, but her 3-year-old campaign was good enough to land Winning Colors a place in the racing Hall of Fame when she was inducted as part of the class of 2000.
Winning Colors gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens their first victories in the Kentucky Derby, and both men have weighed in with heartfelt tributes. But beyond the obvious centers of racing interest, the news of her death hit with particular impact in the little southeastern Oklahoma town of Atoka, pop. 2,988, because one of those residents is Jeff Lukas.
It was Lukas, as chief assistant to his father, who was at the center of the Winning Colors story from the time she hit the track at Saratoga, in the summer of 1987. Jeff Lukas ran the stable's East Coast operation. He wintered in California alongside Wayne at Santa Anita. And then, when the Triple Crown approached, Jeff decamped for Churchill Downs with the colts - or fillies - who were pointing for the classics.
"She was always a big, tall, long-striding filly - an extremely well-structured individual," Jeff Lukas said by phone on Tuesday afternoon. "The thing about her was just controlling her. She was not the kind that would easily settle down. We had to keep her from doing too much, because she tried to put a lot into her training that wasn't necessary.
"We always took her out in the first set every day when it was quieter, with not as much traffic," Lukas continued. "And as far as her exercise rider, that was also an important consideration. When we left Santa Anita for Louisville, she got tough training at Churchill, to the point a change needed to be made. So for the last 10 days before the Derby, Dallas Stewart galloped her. He could gallop a tough horse, and he got her to settle down. That was a key factor to her being able to run her race at Churchill.
"Then on the day of the Derby, it was a matter of getting her to the paddock, getting the saddle on and then getting her to the track quietly."
As for the Breeders' Cup, Jeff had to deal with a disappointing effort by Winning Colors in the Spinster Stakes, her last start before a showdown with Personal Ensign.
"When she did not run her race at Keeneland, we brought her back to Churchill," Jeff said. "After she worked, it was something I'll never forget, calling my father and saying, 'Dad, don't worry about the Spinster. She loves this track and she will run her race.'"
Such memories usually stand the test of time. However, this would be a good place to make the necessary observation that Jeff Lukas is fortunate to have any memories at all, let alone such vivid recollections of the best filly he ever had his hands on.
It was on the morning of Dec. 15, 1993, that Lukas, 36 at the time, was rammed to the ground by a runaway colt named Tabasco Cat, sending Jeff into a coma with a head injury that, according to his neurosurgeon, Dr. William Caton, ". . . was the kind of trauma I'd seen in the most serious kinds of car and motorcycle accidents."
At one point Caton had to perform a ventriculostomy, drilling a hole in the top of Jeff's skull to relieve pressure and to insert both a monitoring device and a drain for fluid. All the while, swelling continued to threaten blood flow to the brain stem.
"There were times we were within minutes of getting to an irreversible state," Caton said. As in brain dead.
But with great effort Lukas survived, and as Tabasco Cat went on to win the 1994 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Jeff was at home in California, submitting to physical and occupational therapy in an attempt to reclaim at least a portion of his former life. What did not survive was his career - he was never able to return to full-time work at the racetrack - or his marriage, although he remains close to his children, Brady, a high school football star in Southern California, and daughter Kelly.
"Brady just signed a letter of intent for a full-ride scholarship to the Air Force Academy," Lukas said, beaming through the phone. "And Kelly turns 15 on Friday. Everything they've accomplished, you try to tell people, but you just can't come up with the words to describe the way it gets to you."
As for Lukas himself, he is currently working for a bank owned by a family friend.
"Getting out of the house, working full-time again, it feels great," he said. "I turned 5-0 last year, and it was no problem. After all I've been through, I'm glad to be having birthdays."