D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer, has started 37 horses in the Preakness. He expects to have three more — Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five — go to the post Saturday for the 138th running of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Does Lukas like Pimlico? Indeed he does.
"I do like it here. We've only missed two, maybe only one in the last 33 years," Lukas said as he waited to accompany one of his horses to the track Wednesday morning.
Standing just outside the stakes barn, Lukas was outfitted in his usual jeans, chaps, boots and spurs and a 10-gallon hat. Waiting patiently nearby was his stable pony Diamond, a reminder that while Lukas may have revolutionized the sport of horse racing with some of his methods, he's still a throwback when it comes to others.
"Every day," he replies when asked how often he climbs onto Diamond's western saddle and accompanies his horses to the track to watch them train. "I may have missed four or five times in the last year.
"You're much closer to the situation. Up there [in the saddle] I can see how a horse is breathing when he comes back, really look at him good. ... I think you can get a better gauge of how the horse feels, if maybe he's getting too fatigued or isn't running right.
About his only concession to age is he wears a helmet while riding, something he didn't always do.
On Wednesday, he rode to the track with each of his horses. In addition to his three Preakness starters, Lukas brought five other horses with him from Kentucky on Tuesday, with the others slated for the other lucrative stakes races on both the Friday and Saturday cards at Pimlico.
"We were up here last year and we won three stakes," he noted.
Lukas' first Preakness starter was Codex in 1980, and it was also his first of five wins, tied for second all time behind the late 19th century Maryland trainer Robert Wyndham Walden, who saddled seven winners from 1875 to 1888. Among contemporary horsemen, the only other trainer with five Preakness victories is Bob Baffert, who will also have a starter Saturday in Govenor Charlie.
"Obviously we've been successful here, but I like the people. The hospitality is second to none, and I think my colleagues share that view," Lukas said of Pimlico and the Preakness. "They treat us very well here, better than at either of the other two Triple Crown races."
Lukas, 77, is a legend in his sport, a one-time high school teacher and basketball coach turned quarter-horse trainer turned thoroughbred trainer for some of the top stables in the history of the game. He is the only trainer elected to both the quarter horse and thoroughbred halls of fame.
Many of his employees call him "Coach," and he peppers interviews with analogies to other sports.
Codex was also Lukas' first win in the Triple Crown series. He's since trained four Kentucky Derby winners and four Belmont Stakes winners to go along with those Preakness titles, 13 classic winners in all, not to mention all the Breeders Cup, other champions and a world record of more than $250 million in purse winnings.
He's experienced incredible highs and a few lows at Pimlico, although as he noted at one point Wednesday, "I don't go around kicking the dirt if I get beat. I go on to the next race."
The other Lukas winners in the Preakness are Tank's Prospect (1985), Tabasco Cat (1994), Timber Country (1995) and Charismatic (1999).
He said he considers Tabasco Cat's win his favorite because of the owner, the late William T. Young, whose Overbrook Farm was a longtime client.
His biggest Preakness disappointment, he said, was not in an actual loss, but the year his Derby winner Thunder Gulch finished third to winner Timber Country, also trained by Lukas.
"I really thought Thunder Gulch had a chance to win the Triple Crown," he said. The second-place finisher in that 1995 race was Maryland-bred and owned Oliver's Twist, who was trained by J. William Boniface, the trainer of 1983 winner Deputed Testamony.
Lucas' first Preakness win was not without controversy. The race favorite was Genuine Risk, who two weeks earlier had become the first female horse in 65 years to win the Kentucky Derby. Even the chart from the race says Angel Cordero Jr., the jockey on Codex, "looked back entering the stretch, angled extremely wide intimidating and lightly brushing Genuine Risk," before drawing clear to win the race. A foul claim for interference by Jacinto Vasquez, the rider of Genuine Risk, who finished second, was disallowed.
Dominating the series
At the time, Lukas was considered an upstart, not a member of the racing club. After he won the Preakness with Codex, he didn't waste any time trying to dominate the series.
In addition to his record number of Preakness starts — Nick Zito is second with 21 — Lukas has had more horses compete in all the Triple Crown races than any other trainer.
"When we won [in 1980] I knew it was the place we wanted to get to," he said of the Triple Crown series. His 13 victories in the series tie him for first all time with the late "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, who was active from the 1920s into the late 1950s.
Lukas won his first Kentucky Derby with a filly, Winning Colors in 1988, and he wasn't happy following the Preakness that year, when she finished third to Risen Star after being "brushed" several times by Forty Niner. Winning Colors' rider, Gary Stevens, who will ride Oxbow in Saturday's Preakness, suggested Forty Niner's jockey, Pat Day, seemed more interested in stopping Winning Colors than actually winning the race himself. Forty Niner finished seventh.
Lukas, who later would use Day as a first call rider in the 90s and would win the Preakness twice with him (Tabasco Cat and Timber Country), put the blame on the late Woody Stephens, the trainer of Forty Niner, and he hasn't changed his view. "Woody Stephens couldn't stand to see a filly win that race," he said Wednesday.
Lukas has come in for his share of criticism over the years for having multiple starters in big races like the Kentucky Derby, and it's probably no coincidence that Todd Pletcher, the name most associated with multiple Derby starters in recent years, is a former Lukas assistant. Counting this year's two entries, Lukas has started 47 horses in the Derby; Pletcher, who entered five this year — and does not have a horse in the Preakness — has started 36.
'Strength in numbers'
Lukas, who said he wouldn't mind having four or five starters Saturday, said he believes in "strength in numbers," but he's also quick to dispel any notion he tries to control the running race with his multiple entries. Nor does he put horses in the big races with the idea they might not win but could still bring home a big paycheck. "That's not me," he said.
He cited reasons while all three of his entries can win Saturday, but he's also acknowledges that the Derby winner is still the horse to beat. "We could be seeing some Triple Crown classic history," he said. "Orb looks outstanding. he's a good horse with good connections. … Right now they seem to have good karma going among them. Karma is important."
Though he no longer has as many horses under his care and hasn't won a Triple Crown Series race since the Belmont Stakes with Commendable in 2000, Lukas says he has no plans to hang up his tack and retire. Before the Kentucky Derby he joked he expected to continue training horses "until I'm 95."
Later, as Lukas returned from the track, he ducked his head under the roofline of the stakes barn shed row and stopped aboard Diamond to chat briefly with Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey, who had been busying himself with a few chores typically done by the stable help.
One man already has his place in racing history secured. The other could be well on the way to doing the same for his come Saturday evening.