No matter who wins the Eclipse Award for best trainer this year, there will be rejoicing by that worldwide organization, the Park Jefferson Alumni Assn.
Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott, the favorites for the Eclipse, may be the only members of the PJAA. Although there is an 18-year difference in their ages, Lukas and Mott spent several summers in the 1960s at the run-down track near Sioux Falls, S.D.
Lukas was a struggling high-school basketball coach then, looking for an out by training quarter horses. Mott, the son of a South Dakota veterinarian and rancher, was a teenager who already knew what he wanted to do: Train thoroughbreds.
Park Jefferson, which ran both breeds, must have been a sight, an unlikely place for two of racing's current stars to get their underpinnings.
The backstretch was so ramshackle that one of Lukas' clients helped him build his own barn. The racing oval was a half-mile, the length of the stretch was 500 feet. Purses were less than $1,000 a race and betting was less than $50,000 a day. In 1966, Lukas won 38 races and his personal share of the purses came to about $4,000.
Into this milieu swaggered young Mott. "I remember him from those days," Lukas said. "He hung around the barns, mixing feed for a horse or two."
One of those horses was a filly named My Assets, who had cost $320. Mott was 15 when he won his first race with her--actually, she finished in a dead heat for first, and Mott won a coin toss for the horse blanket that went to the winner. With purse money and savings, Mott bought another horse, Kosmic Tour, for $2,000 and won the South Dakota Futurity.
Mott was still going to high school, and with success came a disregard for the rules. One day, Mott and a few chums got into trouble with Park Jefferson officials by sending some horses out to the track after training hours. One of them, a 2-year-old, broke down and had to be destroyed.
"You know how it is when you're that age," Mott said. "You know everything, and your father doesn't know anything."
Mott stayed in the Midwest, hoping to learn on-the-job horsemanship from such trainers as Jack Van Berg. Lukas headed west, where the purses for quarter horses were above the poverty level. Park Jefferson went out of business in 1982. The handle for its last season was $2.2 million. In the track's dusty archives, two of the time records are held by 13-year-olds. They race cars at Park Jefferson now.
Lukas, 60, and Mott, 42, are at the top of the Eclipse Awards ballot, a tough choice for voters. Lukas' horses have earned more than $12 million, a national high, and Mott's barn has earned more than $11 million, about 40% of that with Cigar, the cinch choice for horse of the year.
"Bill deserves the award," Allen Paulson said. "He's done it with far fewer horses than what Lukas has had."
Paulson is not expected to be objective. He bred and races Cigar.
"We've got three champions [Thunder Gulch, Serena's Song and Golden Attraction]," Lukas said on his own behalf. "We're going to win the money title. We've won 16 Grade I races. And we won the Triple Crown [with Thunder Gulch in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and Timber Country in the Preakness--the first time a trainer has swept those races with different horses]."
Mott has never won an Eclipse for training; Lukas has won four--three in a row starting in 1985 and then last year. Lukas is still puzzled about not winning in 1988. Drawing from a pool of about 150 horses, his barn earned a record $17.8 million in purses and led the country with 318 victories. Lukas won the Kentucky Derby with a filly, Winning Colors, and he saddled three of the seven winners on Breeders' Cup day at Churchill Downs.
But Personal Ensign, completing an undefeated career, made the last jump a winning one to beat Winning Colors in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and the voters--turf writers, Daily Racing Form personnel and track racing secretaries--gave the Eclipse to her trainer, Shug McGaughey. The champion 2-year-old male, Easy Goer, was also trained by McGaughey, but he was beaten by Lukas' Is It True in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"I expected that Eclipse and didn't get it, so there's no reason that something like that couldn't happen again," Lukas said. "Bill Mott's had a terrific year too, and I won't begrudge him anything. If he wins, I'll be one of the first guys to call and congratulate him."
If Mott thirsts for a first Eclipse Award, it doesn't show.
"The main thing for me is that Cigar, [jockey] Jerry Bailey and Mr. Paulson finish on top," he said. "If I'm second, so be it. What we've accomplished with Cigar will be more memorable than an Eclipse Award. No matter how the vote comes out, we can still be satisfied that we've had a very good year."
The ballots were mailed this week and the results will be announced Jan. 11. The Park Jefferson Alumni Assn. is waiting.
Horse Racing Notes
Corey Nakatani, scheduled to start a five-day suspension today, has obtained a court injunction that will enable him to ride. A hearing will be held on Jan. 26. One of Nakatani's mounts this weekend is Dirca, who is among 11 fillies and mares entered on Sunday, Hollywood Park's closing day, in the $100,000 Dahlia Handicap. Caress, a stakes winner in New York but 12th in the Matriarch at Hollywood, is the high weight, at 120 pounds. . . . Nick Santagata, a 38-year-old jockey, was listed in critical condition after a spill at Aqueduct. Santagata suffered head injuries, chest trauma and broken ribs. His mount, a maiden filly, was destroyed. . . . For the seventh time, ABC-TV has received an Eclipse Award for coverage of racing. This time the network was honored for coverage of this year's Triple Crown. Vic Stauffer won an Eclipse for his radio feature, "Back in the Saddle," which told the story of Jim Hordan, a jockey who lost a leg in an accident. John Miglletta and WNYC-TV in New York won an Eclipse for their report on trainer Leo O'Brien.