LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s just after 5 a.m., and if you’re driving slowly through the stables area of Churchill Downs, heading toward the racetrack itself, and you’re lucky enough to find just the right parking spot in the grass along the fence, when you turn off your engine and look up you will see D. Wayne Lukas on his pony, walking down the trail before the first rays of the sun.
Lucas is 86 years old. And the rest of us are lazy.
Once they’ve done a museum exhibit for you, it usually means you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do professionally. But here is Lucas. It’s not a museum piece. A while back, they gave him the Eclipse Merit Award, basically the Industry Excellence Award. He told the young coaches in the crowd that he wasn’t done yet. He always came to get them.
It was nine years ago. This week he has a colt racing in the Kentucky Derby, Ethereal Road. A fine colt, but Lukas, having trained four Derby winners, is realistic. He is happy to put owners in this position. He also has an Oaks filly, Secret Oath. He also trained four Oaks winners, a filly who won the Derby and a few others who raced there. His eyes light up a bit when talking about Secret Oath.
She hits the track with Lukas’ first practice set in the morning just after 5am. And Lukas is there to watch her. His assistants, as always, are buzzing. His wife, Laurie, is also on horseback.
The Lukas live in a log cabin about 25 minutes from Churchill Downs. They get up a little after 3 a.m., clean up, have a coffee and arrive on the track around 4:20 or 4:30 a.m. Some trainers watch their horses work from a practice stand or somewhere on the track, on foot. Lukas likes to be in the saddle. When he travels, say to the Preakness, and he doesn’t have a saddle horse to ride on, he says he doesn’t feel well.
That’s how he did it for decades. He doesn’t have as many horses in training as he did in his prime. He now trains around 30. But the process is the same. The insistence on routine has not waned. The dedication hasn’t changed, even though the ponies have changed.
“This one is relatively new,” Lukas said. “I used to play cowboy more than I do now. Now I’m old and I want an old one. I’m slow and I want a slow one. called Boomer, and we have one called Rip and another called Scotch. We try to ride some really good horses. I think it comes from my background as a quarter horse. I was in the quarter horse business and my wife is very important in the quarter horse business, so it’s almost imperative that we ride beautiful horses that my cowboy friends can’t criticize when they see it on TV.”
Racing is a matter of bloodlines. And Lukas built the biggest training tree in the history of his sport. Of the 20 colts that have competed in the Kentucky Derby, 7 have training links to Lukas, either through him, his former assistants, or former assistants.
He created the modern training operation, with branches at multiple tracks, horses flying across the country. He demanded excellence, from hay and barn conditions to the qualifications of his assistants. He had to have the best. He had a private plane and a Rolls Royce.
They called him “D. Wayne off the plane.”
But those days are long gone. He is just as happy today that his racing business can fit into a single barn in Churchill. After winning the Preakness with Oxbow at 77, he rode the horse from Baltimore to New York. When he got to Belmont, he joked with reporters, “Now I’m the old man in the van.”
He always knew how to transform a sentence. Lately, he’s done it in the name of sport. He is frequently asked about the issues the game is facing. He was candid years ago when a series of high-profile drug offenses shook confidence in the race. Now, with his friend Bob Baffert suspended by the state of Kentucky for 90 days and Churchill Downs for two years due to the presence of betamethasone in the first runner-up of the 2021 Derby, Medina Spirit, he says the longer suspension is an overreaction, but that he advised his fellow coach to accept the state suspension and move on instead of fighting him and getting kicked out of Preakness and Belmont.
“This horse has not been improved in his performance,” said Lukas. “He had a therapeutic drug that was very, very light.”
That Lukas is settling into a role as a veteran horse racing statesman and ambassador for the sport is no surprise. Live long enough, settle gracefully into the success you’ve built, and it will happen.
But lately, his topics of discussion aren’t limited to horses. You might find a page or two with poetry lying around in his barn or house. Lucas’ poetry. Some time ago, a reporter saw a poem he had written for his wife. The last line: “So beautiful girl, smile and walk a little slower when you walk next to me.”
Awesome. So now the guy can write. And there is this, from an appreciation of the love of dogs.
“He laid his head in my lap this morning as if to say / if you open your heart and your mind, I’ll show you the unconditional way.”
“It’s a side of me that most people wouldn’t expect,” Lukas said. “Most people who know me thought I was too intense and impersonal to maybe sit down and write a romantic poem to my wife. But the problem is when I’m alone, thoughtful, maybe at that age, even though i’ve always done a bit of that, i have feelings that i write down and they were well accepted… most of my friends, even close friends, didn’t know that about me .”
But don’t think that even though Lukas has mellowed a bit with age, he’s less competitive. He always has an impressive figure in the morning on horseback, and that’s by design.
“You have to intimidate them,” Lukas said of his young competitors. “Yeah, keep them intimidated. Never let them feel like you’re getting weaker. I don’t want those kids to think for a second that I’m starting to get tired. I want to kick their ass every day and they know it.”
With Ethereal Road, Lukas knows it would take a “step forward” to reach contention.
“I’ve been around long enough, I’ve seen enough not to have any grand ideas,” Lukas said. “We have to improve. But I feel like he’s probably competitive with most of them.”
With Secret Oath, he has a filly for whom his trust is no longer a secret. He raced her against the boys in the Arkansas Derby, not to have a chance at the Kentucky Derby, but because he thought she might just be better than them – and because he might still running her in the Preakness with a great performance in the Oaks.
He knows something about fillies. He won the Derby with Winning Colors in 1988, one of only three fillies to win the Derby. He also raced fillies Serena’s Song and Althea in the Derby, and is one Oaks win away from equaling legendary Woody Stephens for the record.
“I’ve been here 41 years or something, and I think they’re the best Oaks I’ve seen, and I’ve won four of them,” Lukas said. “It’s the toughest Oaks I’ve seen. It could be as interesting or more interesting and as competitive as the Derby itself. . . . We had no intention of racing her in the Derby , mile and a quarter, 20 horsepower We were racing for $1.25 million, and that was the incentive in itself Even if she had won the Arkansas Derby, we wouldn’t be in the Kentucky Derby. made three questionable runs. Was good enough to overcome two. , and the third jumped up and bit us. Didn’t have a soft spring. …
“But she’s a very, very talented filly,” added Lukas. “You have to be careful here. I know five other guys in the back here who have good ones as well. … I love her. I love her efficiency and her movement. The way she crosses the track. She love this circuit, which we have already discovered. She is by a sensational horse in Arrogate. I trained her mother, and I trained her grandmother and I know they could race. So this is a kind of a Hollywood script in many ways, an old man still tries to do it.”
Lukas’ competitors know he’s serious and shouldn’t be overlooked. He doesn’t train the number of horses he used to – but give him a good one and he knows what to do with it. This is one of the reasons Bob Baffert has entrusted some of his horses to Lukas during the tight schedule caused by COVID-19.
And let them know that Lukas, behind his aviator sunglasses and cowboy hat, still has a bit of Hollywood in him.
Maybe he’ll capture some more material for the Derby Museum this weekend.
“Reality sets in when I squeak and moan and try to get out of bed in the morning,” Lukas told WDRB’s Sterling Riggs at the end of a nearly 30-minute interview in his barn office. at Churchill. “I don’t feel old. I’m lucky to be surrounded by young, energetic, successful people like you. I thrive on that. Have you ever noticed that if you get three or four people together old people, the first thing they start talking about their health? Always, old people talk about their health, the first topic, how do you feel? And then he talks about his operation, she talks about her pain. And I don’t don’t want to sit with these people, ’cause I got some body aches I want to talk about, you know, maybe what the University of Kentucky is going to do next week and a game or the Louisville football team and is this quarterback any good? I mean, I want to be around young people. And I think that keeps me young and I keep my staff young.
A verse from a poem by Lukas sums up the home straight.
So today I’ll love everyone like they’re really mine
because I realize and know that I’m running out of time!
Until then, it may not be a sunset that Lukas rides in, but another corner in the spotlight.
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