A bigger, stronger, faster Winning Colors is a pretty terrifying idea to the opposition. But that is exactly what may be in store when the 1988 Kentucky Derby heroine returns to competition today at Hollywood Park in the seven-furlong A Gleam Handicap.
"It is a little scary to think about it," said her trainer, Jeff Lukas. "But she is bigger than last year, more muscled, and a lot more settled mentally."
Winning Colors gave Lukas, 31, and his famous father, Wayne, their first Derby victory when she defeated a field of colts that included Risen Star, Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold and Lively One. She has earned nearly $1.4 million for owner Gene Klein--who bought her for $575,000 as a yearling--and took the 1988 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.
But with Easy Goer, Sunday Silence and even Klein's current love, Open Mind, having stolen the headlines in 1989, Winning Colors has been very much in the background. She has not run since her narrow loss to Personal Ensign in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs, and, remarkably, she has not won a race since the '88 Derby, exactly 51 weeks ago.
Still, the towering roan daughter of Caro remains one of the true stars of the racing world, a horse that gets fan mail.
"I think she'll put on a hell of a show Saturday," said Gary Stevens, her regular rider. "Her greatness might have been a little bit overshadowed last year by Personal Ensign. But from watching her train, I think you can count on her being even better this year."
Winning Colors had by far the best "losing" record in the game last year, going four for 10 in a campaign that began at Santa Anita in January and ended in the rain at Churchill Downs on Breeders' Cup Day. In four of those setbacks she ran well enough to win, suffering no loss of stature or popularity.
When she takes on her seven A Gleam opponents today, Winning Colors will be running dead into the head wind of racing history, which is littered with the sad tales of champion 3-year-old fillies who have flopped the next year.
In the last half-century, there have been only six filly champions who were good enough to repeat at 4: Two Lea, 1949-50; Royal Native, 1959-60; Cicada, 1962-63; Susan's Girl, 1972-73; Desert Vixen, 1973-74, and Life's Magic, 1984-85, who was trained by the Lukases. The Lukas-trained Sacahuista was champion in 1987 and failed to win a race in 1988.
"No question there is pressure bringing a champion back," Jeff Lukas said Friday. "You don't want to get them beat. You try to map out the program that's best and hope for the best."
Everything about Winning Colors spells ready for the A Gleam. She had been in steady training at Hollywood Park since mid-January. Her workout pattern since early March has been a picture of consistency.
"You could just about set your watch by her lately," Jeff Lukas said. "She's worked every Tuesday for the last month. But you can only work them so long and then you've got to run. The A Gleam came up at the right time."
She will carry top weight of 123 pounds in the $82,400 A Gleam, while breaking from the fifth post position. The opposition includes Behind the Scenes, Tomorrow's Child, Never Cee Miss, Sadie B. Fast, Hot Novel, Survive and Daloma.
Political Ambition and Steinlen will bring their act back to Hollywood Park for the $109,700 Premiere Handicap on Sunday. Steinlen set the stakes record of 1:33 1/5 for the mile on the turf in last year's running, but the English horse was a hard-luck third to Political Ambition in the El Rincon Handicap at Santa Anita April 9.
The rest of the field features Gay Burslem, Peace, Skip Out Front, Good Taste, Half a Year and Putting.