At 77, Lukas Still Running Them and Still Winning

by | 05.20.2013 | 12:12pm
D. Wayne Lukas

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.

  • Concerned Observer

    A trainer is only as good as his stock. Lucas is not the first, nor will he be the last, trainer to hit a dryspell when the talent in his barn is weak. It is good to see him back up there. His personality, class and charisma is good for racing….and aways was.

    • Knowitall

      Lukas. With a K.

    • nu-fan

      And, the guy doesn’t look 77 years of age. Looks like he could take on guys half his age. He must have great genes!

  • Never count out Darnell

  • jttf

    leading money trainer from 1983 to 1992. and then the lasix era began. thunder gulch and grindstone did all of their damage without the use of lasix from 1994 to 1996. how much of a disadvantage was it to run against lasix users ?

  • desertrailrat

    Oh yes, super charming. Wonderful for the sport. Optimizer ran how many damn times last year? And how many times was he well placed? Oxbow has an incredible pedigree and finally ran to his potential in the worst Triple Crown race I have ever witnessed. ( no didn’t bet, save your keystrokes ). What about all the young horses this guy has absolutely burned up? Give me a break, we need less DWL’s and more patient horsemen and women that put the horse before their ego. Never trust a guy in his 70’s with dentures like chiclets that talks about “his girlfriend”.

    • RMK

      Your opinion concerning Lukas’ training skills add to the discussion. However, your last sentence is a personal attack and is unwarranted. In fact, the sentence is meaningless. At least have the bravery to put your real name with your comment.

      • desertrailrat

        It was a joke, lighten up. My name is irrelevant.

    • WT

      Your mean spirited remarks against Wayne cross the line. He was, and still is a great trainer. As another poster said, you are only as good as the horses in your barn and he now has some good ones. Knocking him for “burning up young horses” is unfair. He may train them hard, but that’s how you win races and if they can’t take the training they don’t need to be racehorses. Too many “trainers” baby their horses too much and use drugs in place of horsemanship. I don’t recall Wayne ever getting called on a positive test.

      • desertrailrat

        The first person that pointed out the fact to me that he ruined quite a few horses was Steven Davidowitz in one of his books. I didn’t make it up. Research…. Its a good thing.

        • guest

          Could you please name the book by Steven Davidowitz? He wrote quite a few. I would like to read it. Thank you.

          • desertrailrat

            Betting thoroghbreds

          • biggar

            I dug out my “Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century” to see where Steve Davidowitz wrote that Lukas ruined quite a few horses. In my copy, Steve only praises Lukas and talks about all the successful assistant trainers that earned their diplomas working for him. It must have been a different book where Steve changed his mind and talked of Lukas ruining horses. Maybe you will do some more of that good research and let us know what book that is.

          • desertrailrat

            Well hello there Mr. Biggar. As I said…research is a good thing. A couple of hours after I wrote that it occured to me that I was reading Betting Thoroghbreds and DRF’s Bet With The Best simultaneously in the early 2000’s when re-immersing myself in this game. I felt a little sick not being confident in what I said last night. I do not have either book here at the house as they are tucked away in a box in my storage unit, but if it is not in Davidowitz’s book, if I am to take your word for it, it is definitely in the previously mentioned DRF book which was written by different writers by chapter.

            I am a big enough man to admit if I make a mistake. If I misquoted Davidowitz, I apologize to him. But not to you. Although you did research to prove your miniscule point correct, you neglected to do the actual research relevant to the topic.

            This does not change the facts. If I “misremember” a reference, that does not mean Mr. Lukas is now a “put the horse first” trainer. I suppose my mistake erased Optimizer’s sad Triple Crown campaign last year.

            If you poll 100 people in this industry that know their arses from holes in the ground with the question being: Does D. Wayne Lukas have a history of burning up young horses? I feel that the results would be far more decisive in my favor than the last three presidential elections.

          • betterthannothing

            Thank you. Still Optimizer’s TC campaign was not quite as disturbing as Dublin’s and Going Wild’s.

        • biggar

          Which good horses did he ruin that you personally know of? Or do you repeat nastiness that you pick up from others?

          • desertrailrat

            . Seriously dude, chill out. It’s common knowledge. The onus is on you to do your due dilligence and prove me wrong. Try the google machine. He has NEVER been patient with his horses. Shug, Shirreffs or Ellis he is not. Pletcher learned a lot of what to do from him, but he obviously learned a lot of what not to do also, he is patient with his horses too.

          • Firebrand

            It doesn’t really matter to me which side of the coin you are on regarding Lukas, but I respectfully disagree with your statement that the onus is on the reader to do the research and due diligence to prove you wrong. The onus should be on the writer. If you are going to make such definitive statements or say that you’re quoting someone, it’s up to you to back it up. Otherwise, all you have is an opinion, not a fact.

      • Hossracergp

        You need a longer memory and a little more fact checking to support your claims. I’m not sure that winning races on the big days over shadows catastrophic breakdowns on racing’s biggest days, but to each his own. You can’t deny the man wins races, works hard, etc, etc, etc but there are those who don’t always believe that the end justifies the means. If you think Lukas is old school, then you haven’t been following the game long enough.

  • rachel

    Well, at least when he ran 5 fillies in a single race he won 1-2-3…;-)

  • Richard C

    The race was a great look at the brilliance and baffling mystery surrounding Lukas….Oxbow was on top of its game – and it has to be attributed to the training – but Titletown Five had not one reason to be on the Pimlico track that afternoon; that runner was an embarrassment to the TC chase. Is Lukas a shrewd riverboat gambler or an owner of a runaway ego, even after all these years – or a combination of both. But one thing is certain — ask the railbirds at any track and the opinions will vary to the point of never getting close to solving this intriguing riddle.

    • betterthannothing

      From Quarter Horse racing. Can train owners and horses as long as they survive “the program”. All about ego and money.

  • Sandra Warren

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Many people can say a lot of things about Lukas, but he did two things that impressed the heck out of me. When Landaluce died, she died with him sitting in the stall with her, cradling her head. And when Tabasco Cat ran over his own son, Lukas gathered the whole crew together and said, “We’re not going to take this out on this horse. From now on, wherever this horse is, I’m going to be on the end of the lead shank.” TC could have slipped into obscurity, but Lukas patiently took him over (all the while seeing permanent damage to his son which must have been extremely painful), improving him until he won the Preakness, the Belmont and almost won the BC Classic, never ever taking it out on the horse. When people deny he is a great horseman, the facts stand for themselves.

  • Roisin

    Saw him at Payson Park this yr. He is active engaged and obviously loves what he does.

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