D. Wayne Lukas used to be a basketball coach, but even in the midst of March Madness, this story deserves a football analogy.
The Hall of Fame trainer called an audible this week and will send Titletown Five to next Saturday’s Louisiana Derby instead of Sunday’s Sunland Derby at Sunland Park, as originally planned.
He believes that that will give the son of Tiznow a better chance to make the Kentucky Derby, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream for pro football Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, a Louisville, Ky., native who is in the partnership, along with fellow former Packer and Hall of Famer Willie Davis, that owns Titletown Five.
The Golden Boy won the Heisman Trophy as a halfback for Notre Dame in 1956 and won four NFL championships with the Packers, but has been a fan of the Derby since he worked as an usher at Churchill Downs as a kid.
“You can well imagine; I grew up here,” Hornung said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “I lied about my age when I was 13 to become an Andy Frain usher and make $40 on Saturday, which was a huge amount when I was 13.
“So this has been a special race for me. If I could be part of a winning Derby, for heaven’s sakes, this would be the greatest thrill of my life.”
Hornung said he’s missed one Derby since he was a kid, in 1963, when he and Alex Karras were suspended by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on games and associating with unsavory characters off the field.
On the advice of coach Vince Lombardi, Hornung skipped the Derby to give himself a better chance to be reinstated, and in 1964, he and Karras were welcomed back to the NFL.
During the call, he rattled off a who’s who of Derby-winning jockeys he considers friends, such as Pat Day, Eddie Arcaro, Don Brumfield, Bill Hartack and Bill Shoemaker.
“They were all pals of mine,” Hornung said. “I’ve always known as much about this game as any game I’ve ever been involved with. I learned how to make a wager, and believe me, if my horse would win the Derby, I’m going to break Las Vegas.”
That will be a tall order for Titletown Five.
He was one of the individual betting interests for the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, but is part of the mutuel field for the third and final pool, which will close at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
His only race was a second as the even-money favorite to King Henny in the six-furlong Gazebo at Oaklawn Park on March 2.
Titletown Five has shown an affinity for Churchill Downs, though, breaking his maiden by nine lengths there in October, after two starts at Saratoga Race Course.
He was fourth to Starlight Racing’s Park City in July and second by a neck to the highly regarded Violence, one of trainer Todd Pletcher’s best Derby prospects before being retired with a broken sesamoid detected after he was second to Orb in the Fountain of Youth.
Lukas told the Daily Racing Form that the Louisiana Derby makes more sense for Titletown Five because he won’t have to ship as far, and he gets an extra week to tighten up for the big distance jump to nine furlongs.
Titletown Five will get a rider switch from Gary Stevens to Jon Court because Stevens will be riding the Dubai World Cup card next weekend.
Also, the Louisiana Derby offers twice as many Derby qualifying points, so Titletown Five would only have to finish second, whereas it’s highly unlikely that he would make the Kentucky Derby field with any result other than a victory in the Sunland Derby.
“One win — I can’t sleep at night when I think about one win,” Hornung said. “It’s like getting to the playoffs. You have to keep winning.
“I think he’s ready. He didn’t like the track at Oaklawn last time, and he jumped out once turning for home, and I think that maybe cost him the race. But he’s OK. Gary Stevens told me, ‘Paul, this horse is serious.’ ”
If Titletown Five makes it to Churchill, there will be a heavy Packers contingent, Hornung said, including Bart Starr and current Packers Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
Lukas himself is in the ownership group, and Davis, a highly successful businessman in Chicago who sits on the Packers board, was coaxed into it by Hornung despite the fact that “I don’t think Willie knows a horse from a billy goat,” Hornung said.
Besides the Grade III Sunland Derby in New Mexico on Sunday, the first leg of the Championship Series continues today with the Grade III Spiral at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.
That race has produced a Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, in 2011, and the 2007 runner-up, Hard Spun.
Mechanicville native Chad Brown has the 7-2 morning-line second choice in the Spiral, Balance the Books, who perhaps would be considered a Derby prospect with a win, but has been a turf horse his entire four-race career. Turfway’s main track is Polytrack.
He won the With Anticipation at Saratoga last summer and the Bourbon at Keeneland before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
The lukewarm favorite in the full field of 12 is multiple stakes winner Uncaptured (3-1), whose only loss in six starts was a fifth in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine.
Pletcher has Capo Bastone (9-2) breaking from the outside in his second start of the year after winning an allowance at Gulfstream Park in February.
The local favorite is Mac the Man (10-1), who has won three straight at Turfway.
“The Turfway races looked good, and he came out of them great; not really spent, bounced around the shedrow the next day,” trainer Jeff Greenhill said. “And so I’m like everybody else. Is Mac the Man for real, or has he just managed to win three at Turfway Park and just be another 3-year-old? And I’m anxious to find out the answer to that question.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is sending San Vicente winner Shakin It Up to the Sunland Derby, where he’s the 5-2 favorite against eight rivals who include stablemate Governor Charlie and the Pletcher-trained Abraham, a maiden winner at Gulfstream in February.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will ride Capo Bastone in the Spiral, then fly to New Mexico to be aboard Abraham.
Brown has the 5-2 favorite in the Grade III Excelsior at Aqueduct, Last Gunfighter, who is shooting for his fifth straight win, third straight stakes win and first graded-stakes win.
“He’s bottled up with energy,” Brown’s New York-based assistant, Cherie DeVaux, told the New York Racing Association. “Obviously, it’s a step up from where he’s been running, but he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Also in the field is 2011 Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, who finally won another one, an allowance at Aqueduct, in January, after nine straight losses.
The Spiral card also includes the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks, which offers 50 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points to the winner.
Pure Fun is the 7-5 favorite in her 3-year-old debut following a win in the Grade I Hollywood Starlet in December.
“We wanted a relatively easy spot for her on the comeback,” trainer Kenny McPeek said. “We’re not in [the Kentucky Oaks] yet with points, so we’ve got to run twice, I think. She’s an extremely good filly, and the last two starts last year took her to a new level. Hopefully, she continues that.”
‘CAVIAR’ WINS 24TH
Australian mare Black Caviar won the 24th race of her career without a loss on Friday, taking the 1,200-meter Williams Reid Stakes by four lengths at Moonee Valley in Melbourne, Australia.
The 6-year-old star sprinter captured her 14th Group 1.
Black Caviar won her 23rd consecutive race on Feb. 16 after an eight-month break. She narrowly won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, England, on June 23 and faced possible retirement after tearing a quadriceps at Ascot.
She underwent laser therapy and exercise in a water walker to return for another season.
There have been reports that trainer Peter Moody will soon retire Black Caviar, although she is likely to race in April at Sydney’s Randwick.
AROUND THE TRACKS
The New York-bred Saginaw, who won 10 of 14 starts last year, dead-heated with Awesome Vision in the Compelling Word at Aqueduct on Thursday for his second win in as many starts this year. . . .
Bullet Catcher, who made national headlines earlier this year after escaping from the Laurel Park backside and taking a 1.6-mile journey on city streets before being caught, won his first race in nearly two years with an impressive performance in Friday’s eighth race at Laurel.