Hall of Fame Trainer Has No Plans to Slow Down
BALTIMORE – The resume of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is about as long as the stretch at Pimlico Race Course. Maybe longer.
Where to start? How about right here, at Old Hilltop?
The Preakness Stakes (G1), the signature event on the Maryland racing calendar, has been the personal playground for Lukas for years. When he comes to the races on Saturday, Lukas will be bringing his popular, mega-talented 3-year-old filly Secret Oath to the $1.65 million race.
The daughter of Arrogate will be the 46th horse saddled by Lukas for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. No one has ever had more. If Secret Oath, rated third at 9-2 in the morning line for her clash with eight males, wins, she would be Lukas’ seventh Preakness success in his long and storied career.
Jimmy Carter was President and a gallon of gas at the pump cost $1.19 when Lukas won his first Preakness, with Codex, in 1980.
A seventh win would tie Lukas with Bob Baffert for the most Preakness wins among contemporary trainers. R. Wyndham Walden won seven editions of the Preakness from 1875-1888.
Lukas has been holding court daily at the far end of the Preakness Stakes Barn this week since his arrival on Monday. When the chores of training his horses – Ethereal Road is also here to run in Saturday’s Sir Barton – are done, Lukas sits in a dark plastic chair and begins playing verbal volleyball with wave after wave of media types. Much of it has centered around Secret Oath and her chances of becoming the 147th Preakness winner.
There has also been talk about the man himself. Most his age have long since retired. That word seems to be taboo around Lukas, who still has the energy of a man half his age.
He still wakes well before the sun and beats many of his younger competitors to the backstretch. Lukas is happy. He still climbs aboard his trusty pony, Riff, and accompanies his horses to the race track. Life is good, damn good.
Why would he stop?
“I don’t know what I would do,” said Lukas, who began training Thoroughbreds in 1978 after 10 years in the Quarter Horse game. “I think my wife (Laurie) thinks I should keep doing it, too. I might be hard to live with. I get bored real easy if I’m not in competition. I might become a gambler, and that would be really bad because I am terrible at it. I have to have something to get up for. I need to do this. It’s the best therapy in the world.”
Having a good horse is motivation enough for Lukas to rise before the sun. And he certainly has that in the powerful Secret Oath. She has won five of eight career starts, including the Kentucky Oaks (G1) in her last start on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
If anyone’s counting, that was the fifth time Lukas won the prestigious Run for the Lilies. That tied him with Woody Stephens for the most wins ever by a trainer in that race.
Secret Oath would be the seventh filly to win the Preakness, the first since Swiss Skydiver two years ago, if she crosses the finish line first on Saturday night a few minutes after 7.
Lukas has never been one to shy away from running his horses when the eyes of the nation are on Thoroughbred racing. That’s why he is here. If Lukas says he has a filly that can run with the boys, you believe him. Secret Oath has already run against colts once, that coming in the Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 2.
“She should have won that race. She should have won by open lengths,” Lukas said. “We did not get trip and we did not get the ride.”
Lukas changed jockeys in the Oaks, putting Luis Saez on board instead of Luis Contreras. Saez will be back in the saddle for the Preakness when Secret Oath bangs heads with the likes of Epicenter and Early Voting.
Lukas is counting on his filly making her trademark sweeping move heading into the stretch. If she is able to pull it off, Secret Oath will climb another rung in the Lukas ladder of all-time greats.
In his career, Lukas-trained horses have won 25 Eclipse Awards. Among the fillies to get the coveted hardware are six that were honored for their exploits during their 3-year-old season.
Included in that group are Hall of Famers Open Mind, Serena’s Song and Winning Colors, all members of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
“She has to do more,” Lukas said when asked if Secret Oath was getting close to joining the elite list of fillies he has trained. “She has potential. If she runs the table, absolutely.”
The table that Secret Oath has to run includes the Preakness, the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) and Alabama (G1) at Saratoga, the Cotillion (G1) at Parx, and a Breeders’ Cup race at Keeneland. That is the schedule Lukas has potentially mapped out for Secret Oath the rest of the year.
Lukas thinks she has the talent to pull it off.
“Before the Oaks, I was asked where she fits,” Lukas said. “I said, ‘Let’s let her earn her stripes.’ She answered questions after the Oaks. She gets over the ground better than any of them that I had. She is a pretty mover. The first time we breezed her, I thought, ‘Man this is a nice one.’ I think the best is right in front of her.”
Whatever happens Saturday, Lukas has no plans to pull the plug on his sparkling career. There will be no slowing down. Certainly, no vacation. He can’t remember the last time he took one.
Going to Dallas for a couple of corporate speeches doesn’t count. Heading away from the barn to a yearling sale doesn’t either.
“I don’t really need one,” he said. “We’ve got the Discovery Channel. We can turn that on.”
Story: Tim Wilkin
Photo: Maryland Jockey Club