CRAWFORD | Lukas wheels and deals himself back into another Preakness
BALTIMORE — Every once in a while, thoroughbred racing is helped by some good, old-fashioned horse trading. And trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who came to his first Preakness Stakes 35 years ago this year, is just the kind of old horseman to do it.The Preakness is, inevitably, the middle child of horse racing's Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby is the biggest event. The Belmont, with a Triple Crown in play, gives the sport some national drama. The Preakness is the Preakness. It is the Jan to the Derb...
BALTIMORE — Every once in a while, thoroughbred racing is helped by some good, old-fashioned horse trading. And trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who came to his first Preakness Stakes 35 years ago this year, is just the kind of old horseman to do it.
The Preakness is, inevitably, the middle child of horse racing's Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby is the biggest event. The Belmont, with a Triple Crown in play, gives the sport some national drama. The Preakness is the Preakness. It is the Jan to the Derby's Marsha.
Some trainers, like Todd Pletcher, rarely even bother. He had four horses who could have been contenders for this year's 140th running of the Preakness, and shipped all four to New York instead.
And then you have a trainer like Lukas, who, it seems, will move heaven and earth, or at least large amounts of money, to get into the race. He was on the outside looking in with Mr. Z after a troubled — and nearly tragic — 13th place finish in the Derby.
Mr. Z was owned by Ahmed Zayat, who also owns Derby winner and 4-5 Preakness favorite American Pharoah. He told Lukas he could ship Mr. Z to Pimlico, but never was leaning toward running him in the Preakness. He gave Lukas the official word Wednesday morning.
Lukas, however, felt like the Derby was a throw-away race for Mr. Z. He was in trouble for much of the race, and had to be checked several times. In the staid language of Equibase's chart comments, Mr. Z, “checked repeatedly off rivals' heels passing the wire the first time.” In the more descriptive view of the race video, he was among a frenzied throng of horses racing in impossibly tight company. They were lucky not to have gone sprawling all over the track had any of them clipped heels.
“It was a disaster,” Lukas said. “(Mr. Z) could've screwed the whole damn race up. When you look at the replay, Ramon (Vazquez) did a hell of a job keeping him on his feet, as tight as that got. For a brief second there I thought that he might go down and take about five of them with him. When they ran past the grandstand and went around the turn, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Boy, this could've been wreck, unbelievable, right here.' If they'd have clipped heels and went down, they could've wiped out five or six right in front of us on national TV.”
After all of that, Mr. Z never fired late. And with Zayat unlikely to run him in the Preakness, Lukas began to wheel and deal.
He talked to another client, Brad Kelley, who owns Calumet Farm in Kentucky. Together, they won the Preakness in 2013 with Oxbow. He laid out a plan for Mr. Z that included running in the Preakness, but primarily involved a run at some major fall stakes.
Working as the go-between, Lukas mediated a conversation between Calumet and Zayat. It began on 7 p.m. Tuesday night. By 8 o'clock Wednesday morning it resumed. Lukas not only was working with a couple of wealthy parties, but against the clock. By 10:10 on Wednesday, he had a deal, and then, with the help of some fast work by Justin Zayat, completed the deal in the 20-minute window he needed in order to get Mr. Z entered into the Preakness.
Think he doesn't want to run in this race? Lukas said it wasn't the first time he's been involved in such a transaction, but that it also isn't that common. Asked if he initiated the discussions, he said, “Hell, yeah.” Lukas said he even offered to buy a piece of the colt himself.
“After the first conversation I had with both of them, I told my assistant, they're so far apart, this ain't never going to happen,” Lukas said. “But then I kept narrowing the gap a little bit. . . . They never did talk, it was me back and forth, back and forth, and I kept saying, Don't kill the messenger.' I was speaking with Mr. Zayat himself. Justin got in right at the end, last phone call I made, I said Justin you need to get a bill of sale immediately and get it over to Pimlico to make this official and get some wire instructions and everything else to make this absolutely official. . . . We have a 20-minute window. Now get going.”
It was no small decision for Ahmed Zayat. The horse was named after him. The financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed. But the ramifications for Lukas, and perhaps the Preakness itself, aren't insignificant.
Mr. Z will break from the No. 3 post position. He'll have a new jockey aboard. Corey Nakatani will take over riding, and will get all six of Lukas' mounts on Preakness Day at Pimlico.
He will want to be near the pace, and with American Pharoah in the No. 1 post and Dortmund in No. 2, could be in a position to influence what the favorites do.
Bob Baffert, who trains both American Pharoah and Dortmund, called Mr. Z “an X-factor” in the race.
“I think Bob, if he was honest and opened up his heart to you guys, which he wouldn't do, I don't think he wants to see Mr. Z in there,” Lukas said.
But there's nowhere Lukas would rather be. Mr. Z will be his 41st Preakness starter. He's won the race six times, more than any trainer in the modern era. He said he thinks his success has come from training for the Triple Crown as a whole.
“I think in my case, I've always viewed the Kentucky Derby, it seems like, as a prep for the Preakness, which sounds ridiculous, but I always have that grandiose idea that I'm going to win all three,” Lukas said. “ So I usually go into the Derby a little less prepared, then I come in here and I do pretty good and then I've had pretty good luck in the Belmont, too. This part of my career, this late in my career, I'm starting to think maybe I should just try to win the Derby and not worry about the other two. . . . But my horses stay good when they get good.”
He doesn't know how quickly Mr. Z will “get good.” He has lost 12 straight races since breaking his maiden, though he has been competitive in several stakes races. But Lukas now is itching to show that his Derby performance was an anomaly, and thinks he'll have a good one down the road.
“I've made a living running where I don't belong,” Lukas said. “And Mr. Kelley understands what we're doing. I told him not to buy this horse because you think he could win the Preakness, but to buy him because we have a plan for him, and think he could be a really nice horse through the fall, shorten him up to a mile, and maybe try him on grass. I told him, let's break through and get a good win and it'll all make sense. And he said, ‘I believe in you.'”
At Pimlico, that's never a bad bet.
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