Remembering Bill Nack…And ‘The Quarter Horse Guys’ Who Have Dominated The Triple Crown

by | 05.22.2018 | 4:06pm
Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas (left) and Bob Baffert at the Pimlico stakes barn during Preakness week

It was only fitting that in the aftermath of Bob Baffert's Preakness victory with Justify, it was left to his longtime rival D. Wayne Lukas, to put things in perspective. After Lukas' longshot colt Bravazo nearly caught Justify with a late rush out of the Pimlico fog, the senior statesman of California's backside said this: “We kept him honest just like we said we would. Bob's tough and if he gets the right horse, he's really tough. But kudos to him and we'll see what happens in the next one.”

These two cowboys – actually Lukas is a Wisconsin-bred in a Stetson – have been going at it for a long time now, mostly as friendly rivals. Both former Quarter Horse trainers, they have dominated the Triple Crown races, winning 28 of them between them with a distinctly different style. Lukas, the elder, was the first to bring radical change to the Thoroughbred training regimen in the late 1970s.

Thoroughbred racing's poet laureate, the late Bill Nack, once told me he thought Lukas was a true revolutionary. “D. Wayne Lukas emerged out of the Quarter Horse business and within 10 years had virtually taken over Thoroughbred racing,” Nack said, “He could have managed General Motors, he's got that kind of mind.”

It was early on an April morning of 1999 outside of Bob Baffert's barn in the Santa Anita backside. I was interviewing Nack about Baffert's chances in the Kentucky Derby, coming on the heels of his Derby/Preakness double with Real Quiet and before that with Silver Charm. As the camera rolled, we continued to talk about “the Quarter Horse guys.” In the beginning, Nack said, the “Thoroughbred guys” laughed them off as “beekeepers,” those who were totally without a clue.

“But Lukas taught the old guard how it could be done,” he said, “taught people how to ship, where to spot horses, how to run huge stables in far-flung locations, how to run an empire. (Baffert) is the second incarnation of that industry.” And both possess a “a great eye for horses. They know what a good horse looks like when it is very young.”

I asked Nack to gaze into his crystal ball and he predicted that Baffert had the brighter future in the Triple Crown, which was then 20 years and counting since Affirmed's victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978. “Baffert has shown an ability and an understanding of when to back off a horse. Wayne has had much more difficulty in doing that. He tends to go, go, go – strike while the iron is hot. Baffert has shown a real patience with horses, which has added another dimension to him.”

Ironically, 1999 turned out to be Lukas' year. Baffert had the co-favorites in the Derby, but Lukas beat him with a colt named Charismatic, who lost his first five races as a 2-year-old and then ran for a claiming tag twice. He took the Derby as a 31-1 longshot, won the Preakness and then fractured a foreleg fighting for the lead in the stretch at the Belmont. It was as close as Lukas would come to a Triple Crown.

Lukas is 82 now. His horses have won nearly $279 million and this is the 40th year in a row that his horses have won over a million. Baffert is 65 and at $276 million has nearly caught Lukas in total earnings. And, of course, he broke the Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah, though he has won only one other Belmont, with Point Given in 2001.

Bill Nack, with wife Carolyne Starek, at the 2015 Maryland Million at Laurel Park

Before we finished the interview with Nack, he offered some additional thoughts worth repeating. He found Baffert to be “still very much a cowboy, very much laid back. Loves the one-liner, homespun humor.” But training a horse for the Triple Crown, he said, “is like playing a violin. You've got to tune it, and play it and tune it and listen to it and be sensitive to what the horse is telling you and then go in that direction. I still think it's the toughest goal in sports winning all three of those races in five weeks.”

Bill Nack died last month. He left a legacy of literate writing, especially about Secretariat, that will stand for the ages. The short time I spent with him I found him to be a gentle man, full of mirth – someone who could turn a phrase in an instant. I will never forget his allusion to “the beekeepers,” those who he predicted had the best chance to reach the holy grail of racing, that elusive Triple Crown, “beekeepers” like Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas.

E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He has won four Eclipse Awards for his racetrack profiles.

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram