At 77, Lukas Still Running Them and Still Winning
D. Wayne Lukas didn’t get 14 Triple Crown race victories by sitting on the sidelines. He’s always believed in running his horses, sometimes to a fault. That’s how he racked up all those money titles as leading trainer from 1983-92 and again from 1994-97. It’s how he’s won 19 Breeders’ Cup races, 10 more than his nearest competitor. And it’s how he has now surpassed the late Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons as the all-time leading trainer of Triple Crown race winners.
Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, he had the numbers. Owners with deep pockets and breeders like the late William T. Young supplied him with a stable overflowing with talent. He had divisions from coast-to-coast and shipped ‘em to run at tracks where he wasn’t based. With a sharp, hard-working group of assistant trainers, led by son Jeff, the Team Lukas stable was a horse racing juggernaut.
So much so that some found it hard to root for him back in the days when Lukas did things like run five fillies in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and finish 1-2-3 for three different owners. The deck seemed stacked in his favor. That’s probably one reason he won only four Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer during the 1980s and ‘90s.
Sometimes he ran horses when he probably shouldn’t have. Lady’s Secret, the 1986 Horse of the Year after a 15-race campaign, was off form the following year, having difficulty beating inferior rivals. When Lukas ran her one more time in an allowance race on a muddy Saratoga track, she was pulled up by jockey Chris McCarron after losing contact with the field.
So there was more than a hint of schadenfreude, and not just from the racing press, when his biggest client, Gene Klein, dispersed all of his horses in 1989 and Lukas no longer had as much ammunition at the big yearling sales. His numbers started to drop. After having as many as 14 starters and three winners in seven Breeders’ Cup races in 1988 he was down to three in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup and just two in ’93.
I did my own piling on when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a Louisville television station on the eve of the 1995 Kentucky Derby. When asked about Lukas’ chances in the race, I commented that the trainer had often talked about how the yearling sales were like the NFL draft. In 1995, I suggested, none of his “draft picks” had done very well and said one of his horses, Thunder Gulch, was like a “walk-on” who never got drafted. He was purchased privately by Demi O’Byrne for Michael Tabor and the Coolmore partners and given to Lukas after starting his career for John Kimmel.
Lukas, who happened to see the show, was steamed.
On Derby morning, when I arrived at the Churchill Downs stable area, I ran into one of Lukas’ assistants. “I would steer clear of Wayne,” he told me. “Don’t worry, though. He’s called me a @&@#&*$%@#$% before. He’ll get over it.”
Of course, the walk-on, Thunder Gulch, won the Derby at odds of 24-1, the first Derby win for Lukas since Winning Colors in 1988. Timber Country, a colt he’d purchased as a yearling, finished a good third. I headed to the stable area to take my medicine.
Lukas was surrounded by reporters and well wishers, and when he saw me coming he stopped talking, looked at me and yelled, “You better get your facts straight.”
“Wayne, have you ever made a mistake?” I asked him. “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
We’ve never had a cross word since.
Lukas, who had won the 1994 Preakness and Belmont with Tabasco Cat, added the 1995 Preakness with Timber Country. Thunder Gulch won the Belmont, then Grindstone took the 1996 Derby, giving Lukas six Triple Crown race victories in a row.
Just when some people, myself included, were counting him out.
Now at 77 years old, he’s won another Triple Crown race, after Calumet Farm’s Oxbow upset the Preakness at long odds. The victory ended a long Triple Crown dry spell for Lukas going back to the 2000 Belmont, when Commendable went wire to wire at 18-1 odds.
Some people thought maybe they’d heard the last of D. Wayne Lukas. His numbers aren’t what they used to be, and his only division is wherever he is stabled. The assistants, with the exception of son Jeff, who suffered a serious injury in December 1993 that ended his training days, are all out on their own.
I didn’t think Oxbow or Lukas’ two other runners, Will Take Charge and Titletown Five, were going to win the Preakness. But I learned my lesson 18 years ago. If Lukas has horses, he’s going to run them. And you can’t win if you don’t run.
Never count him out.