- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is eternally optimistic about his Kentucky Derby chances. This time, he even means it. The self-described "world's worst handicapper" proclaimed Proud Citizen will win tomorrow's 128th Derby. At 30-1, the colt would certainly help offset all those false alarms Lukas triggered over two decades.

"I don't feel like this is too much of a stretch," Lukas said. "Two months ago, I thought we would be a race short. I don't feel that way now. A lot of things had to fall into place, but they did."

History backs Lukas' prediction. He has won three of six Derbies since 1983 when post-time favorites were at least 3-1. Harlan's Holiday is the early 9-2 choice tomorrow the highest early favorite in 53 years in the field of 20, so Lukas' system is primed.

After all, the Triple Crown is Lukas' stage. Anyone can win the third race on Wednesday, but "Team Lukas" focuses on the spring classics. Lukas earned his Hall of Fame reputation with five Preakness victories along with four Derbies and Belmonts. He even took six straight Triple Crown races with four different colts from 1994 to '96.

Lukas ended a record 20-year Derby run in 2001, but watching two former assistants chase the roses from the Churchill Downs clubhouse once was enough. He retooled the national stable for Triple Crown contenders and thought Traditional was the best in the barn before it trailed off earlier this year. However, Proud Citizen rebounded from three poor efforts to win the Lexington, and suddenly Lukas was back amid Derby mania.

The 66-year-old has long silenced critics of his zealous quest for a "big hat horse" to win the rose blanket. Winning Colors ended Lukas' record 0-12 start in 1988, but there were another 10 losers before Thunder Gulch scored in 1995 and Grindstone in 1996. Winning the 1999 Derby and Preakness with former claiming runner Charismatic akin to a Class A pitcher suddenly throwing a no-hitter in the majors showed Lukas can score with a long shot. Charismatic was 31-1, much like Proud Citizen will probably rate.

But four victories still aren't enough. Lukas dreams of surpassing trainer Ben Jones' record six Derby wins.

"When you win the first one the fever burns a little hotter," Lukas said. "I was more laid back before the first one. If you have any competitive spirit at all it's going to intensify. Four makes you want five even worse. It never loses its pizzazz."

Lukas wanted a jockey eager for his first Derby victory after scoring with Chris Antley, Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey. Mike Smith has lost nine Derby mounts but finished second in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou before taking the Preakness two weeks later. Smith is 1-22 in the Triple Crown despite a respectable career in New York before he suffered a broken back in 1999.

"I like to get a guy on the verge of breaking out," Lukas said. "Mike's riding very well. I think there's a Derby with his name on it."

Smith won the Lexington in his debut aboard Proud Citizen after jockeys Alex Solis and Bailey failed to inspire the colt.

"I always thought all along that he had the ability," Smith said. "We were just having to play catch-up with him. Ideally, you'd like to have one more race, but the way he looks I don't think he needs it."

Lukas closely watches Derby runners entering the track every morning from his barn next to the gap. Lukas may not tout his own horses well but often knows who will be the top competitors.

The foreign runners have caught Lukas' attention. Essence of Dubai and Johannesburg, Castle Gandolfo and Ocean Sound of Ireland have Lukas convinced a foreign-based colt eventually will win the race for the first time since Canonero II of Venezuela in 1971.

"They've got the numbers, the pedigrees and the deep pockets to keep coming," Lukas said. "They will not give up. A lot of our American owners might get discouraged after two or three years, but these guys will not get discouraged."

With American flags hanging from the stable and a large picture of a September 11 flag raising, Lukas is seeking the patriot vote. After all, Proud Citizen is a son of Drums of Freedom.

And Lukas likes a drum roll.

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