By MIKE FARRELL
---- — NEW YORK -- Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas will be looking for a fifth Belmont Stakes win on Saturday when he saddles Oxbow and Will Take Charge.
One more win and Lukas ties Woody Stephens, who won the Belmont five years in a row starting in 1982. Lukas still has a way to go to catch James G. Rowe, Sr., the all-time leader with eight wins.
On a rainy Friday morning, Lukas reflected on his four Belmont winners: Tabasco Cat (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), Editor’s Note (1996) and Commendable (2000).
Of the quartet, Lukas considers the Tabasco Cat victory his greatest Belmont accomplishment. And not only because it was his first win in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Tabasco Cat was a handful, a fiery colt. He broke free one morning in the Santa Anita barn area and ran wild. Jeff Lukas, D. Wayne’s son, was left with a fractured skull when the loose horse slammed into him.
“Thunder Gulch was a real warrior, he showed up every time,” Lukas said. “Tabasco Cat was mentally a very tough horse to train. Mack Miller, the Hall of Fame trainer, came by the day after the Belmont and said he watched that horse train all week and he didn’t think there was any way in hell he could win the Belmont.”
Lukas credited Editor’s Note with sheer persistence.
“He just ground them down,” he said.
Commendable stole his Belmont on the lead, setting a very slow pace that no closer could overcome. It was similar in many respects to Oxbow’s Preakness win, racing on the lead through dawdling fractions.
“I caught them all off balance with Commendable,” Lukas said.
The tactics will be similar with Oxbow, with the potential payoff much lower. Commendable pulled an 18-1 upset; Oxbow is 5-1 on the morning line.
Will Take Charge offers value in the Commendable range at 20-1.
In the final analysis, Lukas said the 1 ½-mile Belmont distance, the longest of the Triple Crown, is the great equalizer.
“We’re all in uncharted water,” he said. “You can go over and over it, but a lot of them just can’t run that far, especially when they’re pressured. A lot of them can get it in the third race on Wednesday, but when we get into this situation with a little more quality, we’re guessing a little bit.”
Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens credits Lukas with two of the most important wins of career.
The first was aboard Winning Colors, the filly who captured the Kentucky Derby in 1988.
The other came three weeks ago with Oxbow in the Preakness, vindicating Stevens’ decision to unretire in January after quitting in 2005 with badly damaged knees.
“It’s been an outstanding couple of weeks since the Preakness and it was definitely my most emotional win of my career,” Stevens said.
Stevens, 50, has won the Belmont three times.
In Oxbow, Stevens has a horse who will be all business.
“I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a horse in my career that is as focused on his job going to the starting gate,” Stevens said. “It’s almost like a running back — he’s looking at the hole he’s got to go for. He’s a very focused individual and his recovery rate is unbelievable as well.”