By Childs Walker
From Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE—D. Wayne Lukas would never stop.
If he thought ahead at all during the 1980s and 1990s, years when he dominated thoroughbred racing, the word retirement did not compute.
“I don’t handle time down very well,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do.”
After the turn of the century, Lukas stopped being the trainer to beat in all the big races and transitioned to his current status as the sport’s grandest old character, the octogenarian who still dons his cowboy hat, boots and sunglasses to climb on a pony at the crack of dawn. When he won the Preakness with Oxbow in 2013, it was his first victory in a Triple Crown race in 13 years, and many observers assumed it would be his last.
Lukas was 77 then. He’s 86 now, and lo and behold, he’s back at the center of the Triple Crown narrative, preparing a champion filly, Secret Oath, to run in Saturday’s Preakness. He was the straw that stirred the drink on Kentucky Derby weekend, winning the Kentucky Oaks race with Secret Oath and creating the opportunity for 80–1 long shot Rich Strike to run and take the Derby when he scratched his horse, Ethereal Road, from the field at the last minute.
He wasn’t thrilled with his unintended role in that shocking upset.
“No, because I cost a good friend the Derby,” he said. “I apologized to Steve Asmussen,” trainer of runner-up Epicenter.
But Lukas, always aggressive when it comes to pushing his horses into challenging races, seems delighted to be back in the Preakness with a filly talented enough to win it. Rich Strike is out of the field, so Lukas and Secret Oath might be the hook to draw in more casual fans.
“This race was a little bit vanilla until she dropped into it,” he said.
When Secret Oath beat a talent-rich field in the Oaks, the $1.25 million, filly-only main event the Friday before the Derby, rival trainers seemed almost pleased to lose to Lukas—think other golfers falling to Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters.
“If I couldn’t win this race, I was rooting for him,” said Todd Pletcher, one of the many top trainers who came up as assistants to Lukas.
“Lukas winning the Oaks was far better than anything I could ever do,” said Asmussen, who will take on the old master again in the Preakness, this time with morning-line favorite Epicenter.
Almost 300 people sent him congratulatory texts.
Lukas appreciated the sentiments of his younger colleagues, but at the same time, he does not see himself as some romantic long shot, grasping for one last moment in the sun. He believes he is as good at this work as he ever was, even if owners are less likely to send him supremely gifted horses than they were in his heyday.
“People think if you’re old, you can’t do it, but that’s not the case,” Lukas said from his favorite perch at Pimlico Race Course, a chair at the far end of the Preakness barn. “This is a game of experience. There’s no how-to book, so you should get sharper. I think I’m better at doing this now than I was 30 years ago.”
Rob Mitchell, who owns Secret Oath with his wife, Stacy, looks at how many of the sport’s top trainers are first- or second-generation products of Lukas’ coaching tree. So why not work with the guy who was the root of it all?
“He hasn’t forgotten how to train a horse,” Mitchell said.
No one holds court more comfortably than Lukas on the mornings leading up to a big race. At Pimlico, he stations himself on that chair and when reporters aren’t peppering him with questions about this year’s race, he happily ruminates on his former days as an assistant basketball coach at Wisconsin, recruiting in small towns all over the Midwest, or his time in California as a trainer of champion quarter horses, the same world that shaped his rival turned friend, Bob Baffert.
Lukas is still happy to speak up for the suspended Baffert, whom he said he talks to every few days. He said Baffert should have received a simple fine, not the two-year bans he’s facing at Churchill Downs and in New York, for the medication violation that led to Medina Spirit losing his Kentucky Derby victory last year.
“Bob is doing well,” he said. “He’ll be back.”
For now, Lukas would like to tie Baffert’s total of seven Preakness wins, a mark he’d reach if Secret Oath crosses the finish line first on Saturday. He always has been willing to challenge male horses with the best fillies from his barn; he won his first Kentucky Derby with Winning Colors in 1988. It’s never an easy decision but sometimes worth the risk when a classic race and possible Horse of the Year honors are at stake.
“A filly’s not very forgiving; by that I mean you can’t do things with a filly that you could with a colt. If you rough up a filly, they don’t handle it very well, so we don’t want to put them in that situation at all,” Lukas said. “We don’t take it lightly, but everything said, we feel pretty strong now that we can be competitive here.”
Lukas said he never envisioned entering Secret Oath in the Derby, not even before she finished third against males as the favorite in the April 2 Arkansas Derby. But the Preakness, with its smaller field, well, that might be the right place to “step outside the box.”
Six fillies have won the Preakness, but only two of them since 1924, Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and Swiss Skydiver in 2020.
Lukas sees Epicenter as a worthy favorite coming off his runner-up effort in the Derby but not a daunting enough favorite to dissuade him or the Mitchells, who breed their own runners from their modest farm in Kentucky.
Lukas figures Secret Oath had an easier trip in the Oaks than Epicenter did in the Derby, so perhaps she’ll be the fresher horse. And if she breaks cleanly from traffic, he likes her chances.
“It’s her efficiency of motion and her acceleration,” he said when asked to list her best qualities. “She’s got a devastating kick.”
And after Secret Oath takes her shot at the Preakness and races against the nation’s top fillies for the balance of the year, might Lukas think this was the perfect way to wrap up his five decades in racing?
Don’t bet on it.
“I’ve got some pretty good 2-year-olds coming up,” he said, his mind already tuned to what’s next.