Submitted by Jerry Antonucci on Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Belmont Stakes: Lukas enjoying his success at 77
ELMONT, N.Y. – Back when he was riding high, ruling the racing landscape with a far-flung operation that regularly knocked off major races, took down Eclipse Awards, and courted controversy by taking shots in races where his horses looked overmatched, there was an undercurrent of defensiveness to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, at times seething bitterness that seeped out from the façade of crisp suits, immaculate shed rows, and a million-dollar smile.
There was one morning at Churchill Downs, the week of the Kentucky Derby nearly 25 years ago, when Lukas was playing host to basketball coach Bobby Knight, a lightning rod in his own right at the time. Lukas had a barn full of the best runners in the land, a stakes winner poking its head out of seemingly every stall. Lukas, before a large gathering of media, swept his hand down the shed row in a grand gesture.
“These,” he said to Knight, while playing to the crowd, “are the horses.” Lukas then waved his hand back toward the assemblage of reporters. “And these are the horses’s asses.”
One had to wonder back then if − when business started to turn, as it will in racing − Lukas would grow embittered, turn into the mean old man down the street who yells at kids to get off his lawn.
He hasn’t turned out that way. Now 77, Lukas is far from the days when he had multiple stables at the biggest outposts, but he has aged well, not just physically – you’d never guess he’s that old – but emotionally. He’s become more like a favorite uncle who comes over on the holidays and leaves everybody smiling.
At the Preakness Stakes a little more than two weeks ago, Lukas had everyone rolling at the traditional Alibi Breakfast, where trainers are asked questions about their horses for the assembled media. Lukas took the microphone from the master of ceremonies and proceeded to tell a ribald joke with pitch-perfect timing, hitting the punchline like a seasoned comic. He looks, and acts, happy.
“I’m content,” Lukas said at Belmont Park on Tuesday morning as he grazed Oxbow, who is set to run Saturday in the 145th Belmont Stakes. “When I was younger, I’d look around and want to beat the other guy, day-in and day-out. When you get where I am now, you’re content. If you don’t win, you just get an ice cream sundae.”
Make no mistakes, though − the one thing that hasn’t changed is Lukas’s desire to be in, and win, major races. Three weeks ago, he reached yet another pinnacle in his Hall of Fame career when Oxbow won the Preakness, giving Lukas his record 14th victory in a Triple Crown race, breaking a tie with the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons.
He’ll try to add to that total in the Belmont, in which Lukas is set to send out Oxbow and Will Take Charge, both of whom will have competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The race also is scheduled to include five horses trained by Todd Pletcher, and one each for Dallas Stewart and Kiaran McLaughlin, all of whom worked for Lukas before going out on their own. All told, nine of the Belmont runners have connections to Lukas.
“Dallas, Kiaran, Todd – they’re all graduates of Lukas University,” Lukas said. “They’re outstanding individuals. They were wonderful people to start with, but I think they learned a lot from us from an organizational standpoint, the discipline.”
Pletcher said there’s “a certain camaraderie between the group of us that worked with Wayne.”
“We became lifelong friends because of that experience,” he said.
Pletcher even was organizing a dinner at his home for Lukas University graduates for Wednesday night.
“They like to tell stories of things they did then that I didn’t know about,” Lukas said.
Little misses his eye. Lukas is still one of the first through the stable gates every morning, and he still rides out each set on his pony, the lone concession to age being that he uses a stepstool to help ease his way into the saddle. Lukas says when people ask him when he’s going to retire, he says he is retired, just instead of playing golf, he rides horses.
“I get to ride out each morning on a day like this,” Lukas said on a gorgeous, crisp morning at Belmont Park, “and watch the horses go around. On race days, I get to have a great lunch in the turf club, then go out for a great dinner. How can you beat it?”
He jokes that he’ll continue working until the day he topples off his horse, “they harrow me into the racing surface, and that will be that.” Though blessed with good health, Lukas is well aware of the advancing years “when I see guys my age not doing that well.”
“That’s kind of a wake-up call,” he said.
It has been more than three decades now since Lukas first burst on the Thoroughbred scene in Southern California after great success with Quarter Horses. He was well aware of the resentment there was among trainers to his meteoric rise.
“There was a lot of jealousy, but three guys were great – Laz Barrera, Charlie Whittingham, and Bob Wheeler,” Lukas recalled. “Those three guys were at the end of their careers, and they were totally comfortable. There was no insecurity. I can now see where that was coming from. I appreciate that now.”
Lukas long has been able to cultivate well-heeled clients, from Gene Klein to Bob Lewis to W.T. Young – for whom he won Kentucky Derbies – and he’s now got Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm, the owner of Oxbow, in his corner. Though Kelley keeps a lower profile than a deep-cover CIA agent, Lukas says they speak at length each day and that Kelley is integrally involved in the planning of the stable’s fortunes.
“The future looks really well,” Lukas said.
Lukas also has a new girlfriend, Laurie Krause, a world-renowned horse-show judge from Colorado whom Lukas met through friends.
“She’s really starting to enjoy the racing business,” Lukas said. “She’s enjoying the competition. There were 140,000 people on their feet at the Derby. It’s not like that at a horse show.
“That’s what I like about racing,” he said. “There’s no judge. You don’t have to care what anyone says. It gets decided on the racetrack.”
Lukas’s Triple Crown race winners
|1995||Kentucky Derby||Thunder Gulch|
|1988||Kentucky Derby||Winning Colors|