CRAWFORD | No museum piece yet: At 82, Lukas returns to Kentucky Derby
D. Wayne Lukas has become one of the Kentucky Derby's best ambassadors, but with Calumet Farm homebred Bravazo, he's proving he isn't finished as a Derby participant just yet.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s May, 1988, and D. Wayne Lukas, hotshot trainer of the third filly ever to win the Kentucky Derby, has bolted from his barn and is running through the Louisville airport hoping to catch a plane.
He’s flying commercial – not his norm, in those heady days – because he has been booked for an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He gets to the gate and the attendant tells him he better hurry.
“So I go running down the ramp and just as I get there I jump, they’re getting ready to pull it, and I get in there and pause at the entrance, and the whole plane starts applauding,” Lukas remembers, laughing. “And the stewardess says, ‘Boy they’re glad to see you made it.’ And the pilot is standing there and he says, ‘No. He just won the Kentucky Derby.’ And everybody on the plane knew it. It was something.”
That was 30 years ago, and that victory – after 12 unsuccessful tries to win the Derby – changed Lukas’ life. He already was a jet-setter. He already was winning races in bulk, running satellite training barns. He thought nothing of putting horses on planes and crossing the country for a race, at a time when many trainers were leary of the travel. But it was in that moment that he stamped himself as a horseman, and not just a businessman who had success training horses.
The day after Winning Colors won the Derby, Rick Bozich, in The Courier-Journal, called it a performance worthy of the Kentucky Derby Museum. On Sunday, at the Kentucky Derby Museum, they held a celebration of Winning Colors’ victory, with the garland of roses and winner’s trophy from the filly on display.
Wayne Lukas changed the sport of thoroughbred racing from the start. But remember this, as we near the 37th anniversary of his first Derby horse: Lukas is no museum piece. He may have donated his vast racing collection to the Derby Museum last year – but only to make room for more.
He has become a go-to guy during Derby week, even if he didn’t have a horse in the race, and he has had only one in the past five years, until he earned his way back with the Calumet Farm homebred Bravazo this year.
Lukas, once the subject of derision and racetrack envy from the racing establishment, has long since become an ambassador for the sport, and one of the greatest ambassadors for its greatest race. He knows all the history, because he made a great deal of it.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
That he is back, at age 82, with a colt in the race, is special.
“The Derby is always better when Wayne Lukas is in it,” said Todd Pletcher, the former Lukas apprentice who will surpass him on the all-time list of Derby entries this year. Both now stand at 48.
Gary Stevens rode Winning Colors’ to Lukas’ first Derby victory, and he came to the Derby with Lukas to try to win one with Tank’s Prospect three years prior. Stevens still remembers getting the mount on Tank’s Prospect. His agent told him Lukas wanted him to ride the colt in the Arkansas Derby, and that he’d come by his home and pick him up.
“So I’m waiting for Wayne to show up and this big black stretch limousine shows up in front of my house in Arcadia, Calif.,” Stevens said. “I looked out and said, ‘I guess this is my ride.’ And I went out, and Wayne was dressed in a green, ‘Wayne Lukas’ cashmere sweater, and I got in and we chatted on the way to the airport. I’d flown out of Ontario, Calif., before, but we went in a different entrance than I’d ever been in before. And all of a sudden, the electronic gate slid open and we drive out on the tarmac, and I saw a jet sitting there with a “W L” on the back of it. We get in, and there was a bed in the back and he had some coffee and donuts and we chatted for a while and he said, ‘Go on back and get some rest. If we do well tomorrow, get used to this.’”
“What he forgot to tell you,” Lukas added, “is that if he didn’t win he’d have to find a way home.”
They won the race. Then Stevens came to Churchill Downs for the first time a few weeks later and finished seventh as the co-favorite.
“When I first started out I was so brash and cocky that I thought if we got a good horse we should be really careful how we managed him because we just knew we were going to win the Derby, then we had to win the Preakness and Belmont to win the Triple Crown,” Lukas said. “Just winning the Derby was no big deal, we would get that done. And before Winning Colors, for about four or five years, I was using the Kentucky Derby as a prep race for the Preakness. I didn’t have them sharp enough in the Derby, but we’d go to the Preakness and win the Preakness, and that happened with Tank’s Prospect and one or two others.”
For Lukas, the Derby became an end unto itself. He won with Winning Colors in 1988, then Thunder Gulch in ’95, Grindstone in ’96 and Charismatic in ’99.
A LEGACY OF SUCCESS
In all, he has won 14 Triple Crown races (six wins in the Preakness, four in the Belmont), including six in a row in 1994, ’95 and ’96. He’s won 20 Breeders’ Cup races, the most of any trainer. And he has spawned perhaps the largest “coaching tree” of any trainer, with seven of his former assistants finding major success in the sport, led by Pletcher but also including Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, Mike Maker, Ron Moquett, Dallas Stewart, and George Weaver.
“From my coaching background, I knew I couldn’t oversee every little thing,” Lukas said. “So I had to delegate. . . . Our legacy is going to be that we’ve turned out some really good people. One of the jealousies and animosities I felt when we first came over from quarter horses was people saying we were a corporate deal. … They said we were overwhelming them with numbers and there’s no horsemanship.”
That was a bad bet. One trainer who emulated Lukas was Bob Baffert, who won the most recent Triple Crown with American Pharoah.
“He changed - everywhere he goes he's just changed it,” Baffert said. “He's just – not only is he a great horseman and great trainer but he's a great organizer and he thinks outside the box. And he just really – he's probably one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. His work ethic is just incredible. And even at this age, he doesn’t slack off at all. . . . To me Wayne Lukas was always the bar. And I wanted to get there and he still is the bar because he will go down as one of the greatest trainers ever. So he's just – I have the utmost respect for him. He’s a positive guy. He always thinks positive and he's sharp. He knows what's going on. And he'll see horses training, he knows. So he's still a great horseman.”
BRINGING IN BRAVAZO
Ask Lukas about his current chances and he’ll not only tell you about his colt, but about his talented 2-year-olds. Bravazo won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes in February, but most recently was eighth in the Louisiana Derby. His front-running style will be difficult to hold up against this field, but the colt has earned his way in.
“I think he's training well," Lukas said. "If he was a little faster, I'd really be excited. I think we'll keep the race honest. That's the best way to put it. We'll keep the race honest. I don't think he has any limitations to the mile and a quarter.”
Then again, Lukas knows the Derby has a way of plucking the heartstrings once in a while, and a chance for Calumet Farm, the operation that has produced eight Derby winners – including Triple Crown-winners Whirlaway and Citation – to return to its former glory, would be a pretty sizable heartstring for the sport. The farm faced bankruptcy in 1991 and was saved from liquidation a year later. Its last Derby winner was 50 years ago.
A fan on Sunday asked Lukas if winning this year’s Derby would be more special because of his advancing years – he’s five years older than the oldest trainer ever to win the race – and because of the tie to Calumet, the trainer grew philosophical.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “This race, for some reason, seems to honor and give very special people in the thoroughbred industry, a moment that you can’t probably duplicate any other place. I always look back over the years, and say, that person that won it – you take Frances Genter, what was she 83? When Carl Nafzger stood there with her and Unbridled won. We went back to the barn – we thought we could win it that year (with colts Houston and Shy Tom), and I watched the tape of the race with all that emotion and her and Carl Nafzger and the call of the race and him telling her he loved her, and I told (son) Jeff, ‘We weren’t supposed to win today. It was not supposed to happen. That was a special moment.
“Then you look at the Phipps family with their Derby win. Or you look at Bill Young of Overbrook Farm who has done so much for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and he gets a win. You go down through the years and it seems like it rewards people that are special people. If we were to win this year, with Calumet, wow, what a story. To come back that far. When Gary and I won the Preakness, ti was a big deal for Calumet to be in the winner’s circle in a classic. . . . Calumet is so deep in history, and there’s so much tradition in this game anyhow, I really think in the next couple of years we’ve really got a good chance for Calumet to win it, with me, or with one of their other trainers, but that would be very special. I never showed any emotion in the Kentucky Derby until I met Bill Young going to the winner’s circle in the Kentucky Derby, and we exchanged some very personal comments to each other. I knew there surely was a racing God to let him have one like that.”
Maybe the racing gods will look down and smile on Lukas one more time. Not that he’s leaving it to chance. His barn is still immaculate. The Cowboy Code hangs on the wall inside. He intends to be around for a while, with a few Calumet babies growing into contenders.
“My stock is starting to come back a little,” he said, with a chuckle.
THE FIRE STILL BURNS
He still is a spokesman for the sport, a leading voice for the race, a living link to its history. He’s also still a horseman. And his desire to win the Derby burns unabated.
“That fire burns really deep,” he said. “You want to get back. We all feel that way. We’re maybe running out of time a little bit, but I’ve got some great 2-year-olds coming up, so I don’t think we’re completely out of it. The fire burns 24-7, all year.”
Lukas made his flight to be on the Tonight Show, but he never got to sit down with Carson. He got bumped from the show by other headline acts. Producers told him to stay in town, they’d call him when a slot opened up.
“You know how that worked,” Lukas said. “I turned around and walked out.”
Stevens wasn’t surprised by that story.
“Wayne Lukas is always the headliner,” Stevens said.
It's true, whether he’s in the race or not. But it’s better when he’s in the race.
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