CRAWFORD | Preakness foes Lukas, Baffert enjoy historic friendship
As their historic careers have progressed, thoroughbred trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas have seen their friendship deepen.
BALTIMORE, Md. (WDRB) – No two trainers have had as pronounced a mark on the Preakness Stakes as the Hall of Famers laughing outside of the stakes barn at Pimlico on a drizzly Friday morning.
Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas have combined to win 12 of the last 38 runnings of the race, and with six Preakness wins apiece they share the modern record for Preakness wins, with both just one shy of tying the all-time record.
Lukas has won 14 Triple Crown races. Baffert 13. Lukas won the Triple Crown in 1995 with two different horses. Baffert won it in 2015 with American Pharoah. From 1994 to 2002, they won the Preakness seven out of nine years. Between them, they comprise as much thoroughbred racing history as any two living men in the sport today.
In Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, Baffert will saddle 1-2 morning line favorite and Kentucky Derby winner Justify. Lukas is here to try to spoil his bid with fifth-place Derby finisher Bravazo and longshot Sporting Chance.
The two used to be considered rivals. Today, they could take their stand-up comedy show on the road. Both have mellowed. They come from the same roots, racing quarter horses. Their barns are adjacent to each other at Los Alamitos racetrack.
They actually are listed as co-trainers on an entry this week at Pimlico.
“We’re finally getting together on something,” Lukas told Baffert on Wednesday.
Actually, they’ve been together for a while. Baffert sent a horse owned by his wife Jill to Lukas to train. Lukas won a race with him, and before he could even reach the winner’s circle for the picture, Baffert was calling his cell phone.
“I picked it up and Bob said, ‘Who would’ve thought 30 years ago – Trump would be president and Wayne Lukas would be my assistant!” Lukas said.
In the early days, it was the other way around. Lukas burst onto the thoroughbred racing scene and changed the game. He flew horses coast-to-coast for races. He turned a profession known for early mornings and leisurely pace into a bi-coastal, high-volume business. And his business was very good.
“You walked back to his barn in those days and it was like Shangri La,” Baffert said. “It still is. People ask me where his barn is at Los Alamitos. You can’t miss it. White paint. Green grass. He just always did things in a distinctive and successful way.”
Baffert asked him for a job, back in his early years, but Lukas didn’t take him on. Maybe it was a blessing. While Lukas has turned out some of the sport’s best trainers, including Todd Pletcher, Baffert found his own way.
“I told him one day that it was a good thing he didn’t hire me,” Baffert said. “Or he’d be taking credit for all this.”
Lukas said the two never were really heated rivals.
“What happened is media members and your colleagues tried to make us bigger rivals,” Lukas said. “So we went on and let the rivalry happen, and as soon as the sun set, we’d go to dinner. I will say, I don’t like him near as much now that he has all these winners.”
Lukas watches trainers and horses with as astute an eye as anyone in the business, as he travels from track to track. At Pimlico this week, he’s been perched in a chair adjacent to a rear entrance to the stakes barn.
“Bob really is an excellent horseman,” Lukas said. “He gets great horses, but he does a great job with them.”
Baffert says he still sees Lukas as a bar to shoot for.
“He sets the bar so high,” Baffert said. “He’s up there. He’s always been my idol. He opened up the floodgates for the quarter horse guys. He completely changed it. . . . When I was training quarter horses I wanted to be like Wayne Lukas. When I was training thoroughbreds I wanted to be like him. When people said I was the next Wayne Lukas, I thought no way. He’s sent so many great trainers into the business, the University of Wayne Lukas. I tried to hire as many people as I could who worked for him.”
As for this week, Lukas said he’s under no delusion about which of them have the upper hand.
“I really like where we are with Bravazo and Sporting Chance,” Lukas said. “But when Bob got here with Justify and they led him off the van, I was sitting down there in a chair in the barn, and reality hit really fast. He’s a really nice horse. I told Bob I’d trade him my two and some cash to boot. He didn’t want to do it.”
Said Baffert: “Are you trying to jinx me?”
Maybe so. There’s a plaque on Lukas’ barn at Churchill Downs, denoting Lukas’ “World Record” 14 Triple Crown race wins. Lukas said he instructed his team, “Guys let’s just take that world record off, because Bob is going to keep on going.’”
But Baffert knows, perhaps better than anyone, that Lukas has a knack for this race that no one other than him has mastered in modern times.
“What Wayne and I had was that quarter horse background,” Baffert said. “We’d bring a horse in ready to race one day and then turn around in a day or two to race for the money. You had to learn something about really getting a horse fit.”
They learned plenty. And these days, with Baffert age 65 and Lukas 82, they cast some long shadows – and not from riding off into the sunset.
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