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Lukas and Baffert: A Friendship Built on Trust and Respect

Hall of Fame Trainers Work Together to Bring Derby Winner Authentic to Preakness

LOUISVILLE – Bob Baffert has won more Triple Crown races than any trainer in history. So when he needed someone to oversee the preparation in Kentucky of his sixth Kentucky Derby (G1) winner, Authentic, during the weeks leading up to the Oct. 3 Preakness Stakes (G1), Baffert turned to the man whose record he broke.

That’s his pal, six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas, who set seemingly unattainable records that Baffert has subsequently topped.

The California-based Baffert traditionally keeps his Kentucky Derby horses in Louisville until they ship to Baltimore for the Preakness. And just because the Triple Crown’s timing has been reshuffled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baffert saw no need to change as he seeks a record-breaking eighth Preakness. 

Normally, however, the Maryland-bound horses remaining at Churchill Downs after Baffert returns to California stay housed in their Derby Week barn with top assistant Jimmy Barnes. That norm was upended when Preakness contender Thousand Words flipped in the Churchill Downs paddock, sending Barnes sprawling and fracturing his wrist. Thousand Words was scratched from the Kentucky Derby and, like Authentic, is being pointed for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

Going into Lukas’ famously pristine barn was the obvious option, where the only thing missing from the equine equivalent of a five-star hotel is the mint on the pillow. On the other hand, there is the perk of having Hall of Fame pony boy going to the track with the horses for training. 

Baffert long has shipped his horses into Lukas’ winter barn in Arkansas when pursuing Oaklawn Park’s lucrative Derby prep schedule, including this year when Nadal came away from Lukas’ hospitality sporting victories in the Rebel (G2) Stakes and Arkansas Derby (G1), and in 2015 when American Pharoah swept those races and the Triple Crown.

“Wayne and his crew have been great,” Baffert said recently. “It’s a great environment for these horses. His barn is fantastic. You know Wayne — it’s like the horses are staying at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s fun. He’s still a very sharp horseman. He lets me know how they look and how they’re doing. I trust what he tells me, because he knows.”

Lukas won the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow for his 14th Triple Crown race triumph overall, breaking out of a tie with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. Baffert tied Lukas’ mark five years later when Kentucky Derby hero Justify won the Preakness Stakes. He assumed the record outright when Justify gave Baffert his third Belmont Stakes and second Triple Crown sweep. Authentic’s Derby padded Baffert’s Triple Crown record to 16 victories.

Baffert’s Preakness haul is matched only by R.W. Walden’s seven victories from 1875 through 1888. His six Derby winners are tied with Ben Jones (1938-1953).

“We take the responsibility of doing a good job and taking care of them,” Lukas, aided by assistant trainer Sebastian “Bas” Nicholl, said of his horse guests. “Secondly, we just do what Bob wants done. We don’t make any earth-shattering decisions. We give feedback how they’re doing. He’s actually calling all the shots; we just follow through and do a good job of keeping them quiet and happy. It’s worked out well in the past. In fact, my strike rate with him is better than my strike rate with my own horses.

“Bob always laughs and says, ‘Gee, the barn is so clean and nice. I don’t know if they can handle it.’ Sebastian has done a great job getting them in and out. We’re just trying to do what he wants done and hopefully they run really well under our watch. It would be bad if they run bad in the Preakness and they say Lukas screwed them up.”

Authentic’s only defeat in six starts came in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby (G1). He subsequently won Monmouth Park’s Haskell (G1) at 1 1/8 miles by a nose after appearing poised to draw off.

Lukas said he never questioned that Authentic could be as effective at 1 1/4 miles after watching him train at Churchill Downs before the Derby.

“His energy level, I was watching him come off the track, and his efficiency of motion,” he said. “That horse, you have to sprinkle flour to see if he’s touching the ground. I mean, he just gets it over so nice. I think the Preakness is going to be right up his wheelhouse. He ran a heck of a race here. But shortening up and over that particular track, I think he’s going to be awful hard to handle. And he’s done terrific since the race. I’m not a big gambler, but I wouldn’t bet against this horse any time now.”

Lukas, who predicted long before the Kentucky Derby that American Pharoah would be the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, likes what he’s seen with the Baffert duo.

“From watching them and just being objective, they’re doing terrific,” he said. “I think they’ve put on a little weight, which is very satisfying. Bob, I think, felt the same way. Obviously after the Derby, the winner was a little bit tucked up, which you’d expect going that far. But his energy level was unbelievable, and I think he’s put on 15, 20 pounds. We’re feeding them like Bob feeds them. But I think they’re just in the alfalfa a little bit, and the hay, and they’re just doing well.”

Lukas cheerfully promises he’ll give Authentic back to Baffert,” noting of the week’s scheduled equine charter from Louisville to Baltimore, “He’s going to get him back Tuesday.

“Most trainers who had a Derby winner going to the Preakness would probably pitch a rollaway bed in the next stall and not even let him out of sight, let alone going back to California and saying, ‘How is he doing?’ ”

Lukas still holds the record for most Eclipse Award champions (24 individual horses) and Breeders’ Cup victories (20). But he doesn’t hesitate to call Baffert No. 1.

“There’s more to this than just training that horse to run a mile in 1:32-and-change,” he said. “His horsemanship, his ability to find a good horse and buy it, his ability to keep his clientele happy — he’s No. 1 simply because he covers all the bases. The only thing he doesn’t do that I do is he doesn’t give those corporate speeches.”

Words: Jennie Rees