Ever since he came to Pimlico Race Course with Codex in 1980 for his first Preakness as a largely unknown trainer of thoroughbreds, D. Wayne Lukas has followed a similar routine at the Preakness.
In the years when he gets to Baltimore early in the week, Lukas will sit at the end of the stakes barn and scout out the competition. Not only his fellow trainers, but the horses themselves.
It’s one of the many things Lukas loves about the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, which he has won six times. Lukas and Bob Baffert will try to tie the record of seven, set by Carroll County-based trainer R. Wyndham Walden from 1875 to 1888, when the 143rd Preakness is held Saturday.
Taking advantage of being the first trainer to arrive at the historic track Monday afternoon, Lukas already had his chair situated near the stalls for his two entries, Sporting Chance and Bravazo, by early Tuesday morning.
“I can see what everybody else is doing,” Lukas said after his horses worked out. “That chair ... is a big deal. Over the years I’ve sat in that chair in the corner there and [the horses] go by and I say, ‘You can draw a line through that one.’ Then you get some surprises.”
Lukas has had his own share of long-shot winners at the Preakness, most recently with Oxbow in 2013. Now 82 and looking more than a decade younger, Lukas said he doesn’t care much about tying the record for Preakness wins or adding to his own all-time record of 14 Triple Crown victories
“I think you can get caught up in that, maybe when you’re younger,” Lukas said. “When you’re a lot younger, you have a tendency to be more aware of that. That’s a way of keeping score, obviously. But as you get older, they kind of wear out a little bit. They don’t seem to be quite so significant.”
That’s not to say Lukas still doesn’t enjoy beating the competition, including former assistant Todd Pletcher as well as Baffert, who will go into Saturday’s race with Kentucky Derby winner and heavy favorite Justify.
Just like Lukas’ old friend, Bob Knight, who liked to beat his protege, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, as well as the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina.
“That’s what fuels us," said Lukas, who coached high school basketball in his native Wisconsin for nearly a decade before becoming a horse trainer. “The competition is what keeps you getting up in the morning and going after it. I have great friends in the business and I enjoy competing against ’em. And when I’m not in the races, I pull for ’em.”
Lukas is honest about his two horses this year.
“You hope you have the one. Sometimes you get lucky — Oxbow comes in here, nobody knew he was here,” Lukas said. “At this point in my career I’m realistic, too. When you’re 30, you think you’re going to beat everybody and then at 82 you think, ‘Maybe Justify’s a little tough.’ ”
Baffert, who is also trying to downplay the significance of possibly passing Lukas in Preakness victories, recalled during a national teleconference last week how he met his longtime friend and rival as a teenager in Arizona while he was helping his own father raise and race quarter horses.
‘I’ll never forget when he came in with his fancy trailer and man, there’s Wayne Lukas,’ ” Baffert said. “He was huge then. He’s always set the bar, you know. ... He opened up the doors for us quarter horse guys to try thoroughbred racing. You know, he changed quarter horse racing and he changed thoroughbred racing. Everywhere he goes, he changes it.”
Yet Lukas doesn't seem to change, or age.
Former jockey Richard Migliore, who retired in 2010 at age 45 and is now a racing analyst, is awed by the level at which Lukas still competes.
“He is truly amazing in every way you can imagine,” Migliore said after Tuesday’s workouts. “Just the fact that he's still playing the game at the highest level, that he’s still enthusiastic in a game that can grind people down. You can see how much he loves it."
It didn’t surprise Migliore to see Lukas, sitting atop his 11-year-old pony, Starbuck, riding out to the track with Sporting Chance. That it was around 6 in the morning and Lukas was the first trainer to work out his horses this week is seemingly the norm.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of weather, still rides his pony out every day,” Migliore said. “I’m so impressed with the man.”
So is Baffert, despite his own remarkable record, including being one Triple Crown win away from tying Lukas.
“His work ethic is just second to none,” Baffert said on the teleconference last week. “At his age, he’s positive … he thinks he’s going to win everything. I wish I had that kind of energy. He is still above me. In the quarter horses I couldn’t get to his level; I feel the same in the thoroughbred level.”
Pointing out the number of successful trainers who have worked under Lukas, Migliore said, “He has left his indelible mark on this industry.”
Lukas acknowledged during the teleconference that his human legacy in terms of the trainers he helped develop might be more impressive than his four-legged ones — including two dozen quarter horse world champions — who helped him set so many records.
“Most people look at our legacy through the young people that have come up and are doing so well and they make us proud every day,” Lukas said. “I mean, they’re very, very good men, and I think that before it’s all said and done, we’re probably going to be a coaching tree and a legacy in that area more so than some horses that we developed.”
Lukas, who has a book of his famous quotes titled “Sermon On The Mount” coming out this summer, said he has no plans on retiring.
“I got some friends that have backed off [working], not necessarily in the horse racing business, and I thought they aged quickly,” Lukas said. “I don’t know why. Maybe they were going to anyhow. If I keep up and get into this routine, I think it’s like an old racehorse.
“I don’t find it a grind because of my interests and so forth. I feel like I was doing it 35, 40 years ago. I don’t feel any different. I know I am different. I’m slower, I’m sure. I’m a lot smarter, too. … My passion for the game is still pretty high. At this stage of my career I like to compete in the better arenas.”
There is something about Pimlico that stirs Lukas more than Churchill Downs or Belmont Park.
“This is a special place,” he said. “I think it’s the hospitality. You’re let down a little bit from the Derby and then you get in here and there’s a little more camaraderie. At the Derby, there’s no interaction with the trainers. They even have a trainers’ dinner and there’s no interaction. Here it’s a little more relaxed.”
Lukas smiled as he recalled his first trip to the Preakness 38 years ago.
Sitting at the end of the stakes barn on a bench that he said was repainted bright pink, Lukas noticed a flurry of activity by other trainers and their horses a couple of hours before post time. He kept going from watching Codex to the other trainers and their horses in the race.
As the other horses were given ice boots and nebulizers, Lukas gained confidence in Codex, who went on to beat Genuine Risk, the second of three fillies ever to win the Kentucky Derby, by nearly five lengths.
As the first big race of new career approached, Lukas sat on the bench and Codex stood unbothered in his stall.
“It it was like [they] went into veterinary mode or something,” he said. “I said, 'Damn, am I missing something here?’ ” Lukas said. “Mine’s over here munching hay. I thought, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’ ”