If you have half an hour to spare of your day, check out this awesome story from Sports Illustrated about Jeff Lukas, the son of D. Wayne Lukas, the famous Thoroughbred race trainer. Working under his father, Jeff was executor of the powerful Lukas stable in the ’80s and early ’90s and managed such runners as Lady’s Secret and 1988 Kentucky Derby champion Winning Colors. In December of 1993, an accident happened that would forever change the lives of Jeff, his family and his father.
Tabasco Cat, a hotshot 2-year-old at the time, got loose in the barn area after a bath. Jeff did what most of us would do; he jumped in the horse’s path and waved his arms, trying to get the horse to divert his direction. Unfortunately, Tabasco Cat charged on and trampled him. Jeff was taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries, including a fractured skull. At first, it seemed like he would make a miraculous full recovery, but it was not meant to be. It’s a long article, but well worth the read.
Twenty years ago, Jeff Lukas was the top assistant to his legendary father, thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Then, one morning at Santa Anita, site of this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, he stood in the path of a charging horse and lost everything. Or did he?
I came to this story expecting to find a tragedy. A man lost his health, his family, his career. An idyllic life was replaced by a seemingly lesser one. Many others share this assessment, but after using the word sad, they tack qualifiers onto the ends of their sentences, struggling to reconcile Jeff Lukas’s two lives. They are confused.
Dallas Stewart is typical. “Aw, it’s a sad story, man,” says Stewart. “Jeff never got to come into his own as a trainer. He would have been a superstar. The accident changed all that. I wish he and Linda and their kids had the chance to experience all the great things that Todd and Kiaran and me have had. But I don’t know, he’s got two great kids that love him and he says he likes it where he is.”Lukas, who can no longer drive because of his injury, works with a colleague as a courier and a building inspector for a bank in Atoka. “I’m proud that I stayed determined, focused and worked my way back to be here working with these people,” he says. “I couldn’t be in a better spot.”
David Burrage, who has shared almost every important moment of Lukas’s life in the last 20 years, says, “You know, it’s a sad story. He had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children and he was making sound financial decisions and advancing his career. And then it’s like he got robbed. He got robbed of who he was. But Jeff will tell you that it’s a happy story, and I believe he is happy.”
Bill Caton has been treating brain-injured patients for more than four decades. “Thousands,” he says, sitting behind a spectacularly cluttered desk in his Pasadena office. His perspective is different from everyone else’s. Caton knew “virtually none” of his patients before their injuries. We talk for more than 90 minutes and I explain to him that I have a dilemma. A man has escaped death, yet he has lost a life. I am a sportswriter who doesn’t know whether he’s writing about a win or a loss.
Caton smiles beneath a head of light grey hair. “You’re writing about a huge win,” says Caton. “Looking at the severity of Jeff’s injury, to survive so well, is extremely rare. Looking at what could have been . . . well, we could have had Jeff die and there would have been a huge void. But look at this: Jeff, I think, is happy. I’ve found him to a be a smiling, happy person, a good companion. In fact, I understand that he was rather abrupt before the accident. Now he is kind, considerate, caring, a lot of good things.
“I understand that the loved ones did not have their expectations met,” says Caton. “But look at those loved ones. Linda has formed a new life, Wayne has continued to be very successful, there are two wonderful kids. The story may not have ended the way it was supposed to end, before Jeff was hurt, but to me, it’s ended in a very happy fashion. There is more to life than money and perceived success.”
The Breeders’ Cup gets underway today with first post, the Juvenile Turf Sprint, at 10:15am PT (1:15pm ET). The Classic goes off at 5:45pm PT/8:45pm ET. [Full Race Card] Watch online all day at breederscup.com and catch the big race on NBC.