By Ray Paulick
I would be hard-pressed to name an individual who has had a bigger impact on American racing over the last 30 years than D. Wayne Lukas, a member of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame and four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer.
From sales pavilions in Kentucky and New York, throughout the Triple Crown series and on to the Breeders' Cup, Lukas has been a major, transformative figure for the sport. He's won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes four times each and the Preakness five. His 18 Breeders' Cup victories put him far ahead of the competition. Lukas may not have invented the concept of operating multiple stables throughout the country, but he perfected it during the 1980s and early '90s when he oversaw operations in New York, California and other states and completely dominated the money standings for trainers, leading the list on 14 occasions.
Lukas has seen his numbers decline considerably over the last decade, but the torch was passed to some of his former assistants, including Todd Pletcher, who now puts up numbers similar to those of his old boss.
Lukas captured his first Triple Crown race 30 years ago with Codex, who defeated Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk in 1980 in a controversial running of the Preakness Stakes. Codex did not run in the Derby after Lukas failed to nominate him. It took him 13 starters and eight years before he saddled his first Kentucky Derby winner, the filly Winning Colors, who carried the familiar colors of the late Eugene Klein, one of Lukas's biggest clients. Pletcher, who could start as many as seven horses in this year's Derby, has won many of the sport's biggest races but has found winning the Roses on the first Saturday in May just as elusive as they were for Lukas in his earliest attempts. He is now 0-for-24. In fact, after this year, only Lukas will have started more horses in the Kentucky Derby than Pletcher.
Now 74 years old, Lukas will be back at this year's Kentucky Derby with a solid contender in Dublin, a son of Afleet Alex who has been prepping at Oaklawn Park during the winter, where the Hall of Fame trainer was based. He spoke with the Paulick Report about his experiences in the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown.
Following is the first of two parts of that interview:
From a preparation and training standpoint, how is the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown different from other races?
One change over the years, and I really believe it's huge, is the fact we don't have a Triple Crown anymore. It's really a five or six-race series because you've got to earn enough money in graded stakes races to get in. You no longer can slip in, or wake up in April and say, “I think I'll go to the Derby with this horse.” You've got to start planning in January and have at least two major prep races. Those 14- and 15-horse fields we used to see are no longer a reality. You've got to pick some major races and run well enough to get the graded stakes earnings, and this year it looks like it's going to take over $200,000.
So what has happened to us is we are having to train a horse hard enough just to make the Derby, and then you have to have a pretty special animal to get through the Preakness and Belmont. That pressure to win graded stakes money has changed the whole complexion.
It would be very unusual for anyone over the next decade to just sit back and take a shot at getting in. Certainly, horses jump up at the last minute and win the Blue Grass like Stately Victor did the other day, but you can't take the preps lightly. Back in the Calumet era, they'd prep them at home, then waltz them over to Churchill Downs. It was a hell of a lot easier to do that and beat six or seven opponents, than it is to scramble around the way we do now. (Note: Calumet Farm's Triple Crown winner Citation beat just five others, including stablemate Coaltown, in the 1948 Kentucky Derby.)
You saddled 12 horses in the Derby before getting your first win with Winning Colors in 1988. Was there a learning curve or was it really just a matter of having the right horse at the right time?
It's a combination of both. There is definitely a learning curve. Of all the races in the country—you could ask me, (Bob) Baffert, (Nick) Zito…whoever has won it a couple times. If they open up their heart they'll tell you experience is paramount. Most people go away humbled and shaking their head. Number one, we don't practice at a mile and a quarter. There is a certain mystique among younger trainers that a mile and a quarter is a big hurdle. There is no “how-to” book. There is definitely a learning curve.
Almost equal to that is having the right horse at the right time. There have been some Derby winners–Giacomo, Mine That Bird, and Dust Commander come to mind—that experience their first 15 minutes of fame on the right day. It seems like every year you can look at the chart after the Derby, and you'll always find something that makes you shake your head, including some of those I've run.
You don't have to be the best horse in April or July; you've got to be the best horse on the first Saturday in May. If you are, and you're the best prepared, you can win. I don't think luck carried me in any of my wins. The four I won I thought every one of those horses were trained as well as possible and in the best position to run the best race: especially Charismatic, Winning Colors, and Thunder Gulch. Grindstone I thought might have gone over the top and we were fighting a knee problem with him.
Your former assistant Todd Pletcher has gone 0-for-24. Any advice for him?
We talk. I think he's got the experience behind him and he was around some very good horses with me. Todd, Dallas Stewart, all those guys were. Todd has not really had the right horse on the right day, but I'll say this: that 0-for-24 really surprises the hell out of me. He wins his share of the prep races, and it's just a matter of time. He's rolling in with the favorite this time.
Your four Derby winners took four different routes: Winning Colors won the Santa Anita Derby as final prep; Thunder Gulch ran poorly in the Blue Grass; Grindstone narrowly lost the Arkansas Derby; and Charismatic won the Lexington Stakes. Do you have any thoughts on preferred races and spacing between races coming into the Kentucky Derby?
Spacing is important, but it's what that horse prefers that you've got to follow. The horse is the key. Let's take Proud Citizen: he came through the Lexington and ended up second (to War Emblem in 2002). Charismatic was just getting good enough when the Lexington came up. We didn't have any options with him; it was do or die. He determined his own fate. Thunder Gulch came through Florida, winning the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, then bounced in blue grass. He had proved to me he was good enough. Winning Colors just dominated everybody. Every horse is different.
What do you think is the reason trainers are giving Derby candidates fewer prep races and giving more space between their final prep and the Derby itself?
Any of the guys who have not been there or are up and coming, they all make the same comment, and frankly it makes me smile. They say, “I just want to keep him together and get him there.” It's almost as if getting there has become almost as big a deal as winning. I never had that mindset and I know Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, and Woody Stephens never had it, either. We never took the mindset that we wanted to just get there. We wanted to kick ass.
So many of these guys all say the same thing now: “I don't want anything to happen to him in another (prep) race.” The only thing wrong with that philosophy is when you get there your clientele may be happy, but then you find out they want to go one step further and be on the board. They don't want to be embarrassed. It's funny, every year 23 or 24 try to get into Derby, and when it's over only a handful even think of going to the Preakness.
Next week. Lukas talks about his biggest regrets, changes he's seen in the Thoroughbred breed over the last 30 years, and recommendations he believes will improve the Triple Crown.
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