Commentary: Irascible D. Wayne Lukas brings energy to an otherwise dull Belmont Stakes (2024)

Saturday’s third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown will, once again, be the pretty girl at the prom who gets jilted when her date doesn’t show up. The Belmont Stakes will be a classic by reputation only.

But it’s not without a story line, even when there is no 3-year-old thoroughbred star racing for history. That’s because D. Wayne Lukas will be there.

He is not just a story. He is a library shelf. The human-interest side doesn’t often dominate in Triple Crown racing, but it should this time. The horses in this one are kind of a yawn. D. Wayne was never that and never will be.

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He will be 89 in September. That’s not a typo. He rode his pony around the barns all week as he watched his main contender, Preakness winner Seize the Grey, prepare to give him his 16th Triple Crown title. He will be dressed impeccably and wear a stylish Stetson. On race day, he will be in coat and tie and hold court with the press in his barn, which will be so clean they could use it as the model in a real estate deal. The word most often used to describe a Lukas barn, by friend and foe alike, is pristine.

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He was already a Hall of Famer in the quarter horse world, when, in 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, he moved over to the thoroughbreds and saddled Codex to a victory in the Preakness. That was the beginning of his thoroughbred training life, and while there have been some dips in success, there has yet to be anything near an end. Lukas is fond of saying, as he accepts all sorts of awards and spots in Halls of Fame, that all the hyperbole is a plot to get him to retire.

“They just want to get rid of me,” he says, as he did when the TV guys surrounded him moments after Seize the Grey had seized the day three Saturdays ago in Baltimore. His eyes always twinkle when he says that, or a version of that. It is almost like he needs to believe that to keep going. D. Wayne Lukas won’t retire. We will know it is over only when we read his obit.

When D. Wayne saddled a big, burly Codex for the ’80 Preakness, neither he nor his horse were the story. Genuine Risk had won the Kentucky Derby and was only the second female horse in 65 years to do so. Lukas, as is most things, was about as sentimental as a middle linebacker about the prospect of a female Triple Crown winner. He put Angel Cordero, the jockey world’s version of Dick Butkus, in the saddle. Cordero and Codex bumped and banged their way around, not being the least bit gentlemanly with Genuine Risk, and won the Preakness.

Interestingly, in 1988, a third filly, Winning Colors, won the Kentucky Derby. She was saddled by D. Wayne Lukas.

Lukas did not grow up on some farm in Kentucky, mucking stables as a teenager and rubbing elbows all day, every day, with grizzled horsem*n. Lukas did grow up on a farm, all right, but in the state of Wisconsin, where there is no parimutuel betting, and where horse racing is pretty much confined to county fairs. His birthplace, Antigo, Wis., an hour and a half northwest of Green Bay, had a fair and D. Wayne, like it, liked the horses.

Commentary: Irascible D. Wayne Lukas brings energy to an otherwise dull Belmont Stakes (2)

Seize The Grey’s trainer D. Wayne Lukas, left, shakes hands with with Bob Baffert, Imagination’s trainer, after Lukas’ horse won the Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course on May 18 in Baltimore.

(Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)

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But that sort of career was not foremost in his mind. He went to the University of Wisconsin, got his master’s degree in education, started teaching and soon was a high school head basketball coach. For a while, he was an assistant coach in the Big Ten for UW’s John Erickson. He stayed close to the game of basketball, even as his days were dominated by barns and back stretches. Along the way, one of his best friends became Bobby Knight. D. Wayne liked the toughness and drive to win of the legendary Indiana University coach.

In those 44 years since Codex barreled across the finish line first at Pimlico, Lukas has had many ups and a few downs. He has won four Eclipse Awards as top trainer in the country and added another, the prestigious Eclipse Award of Merit. He has won so many lucrative Grade 1 stakes races all over the country that it would take this entire sports section to identify and elaborate on all of them. He not only has won four Kentucky Derbies and four Belmonts to go with his seven Preakness titles, but he also won a Triple Crown of sorts. In 1995, Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont and Timber Country won the Preakness. They were both trained by D. Wayne.

The low spot was in December 1993. Lukas’ son, Jeff, had become his father’s main assistant. By all accounts, he was as driven, organized and knowledgeable as his father and had a great future in the business. Then, one day, one of the Lukas barn’s 2-year-old stars, Tabasco Cat, got loose along the shedrow at Santa Anita. Usually, stepping in front of a horse on the loose and waving your hands wildly will slow the animal down. Jeff Lukas did that, Tabasco Cat did not. The horse plowed into the younger Lukas at full speed and Jeff Lukas suffered a head injury that put him in a coma and did permanent damage.

Jeff tried to come back for several years, but the brain damage was too much to overcome. Eventually, his father bought him a home in Atoka, Okla., near one of D. Wayne’s longtime friends, and Jeff lived there until he died in March 2016.

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During Jeff’s recovery period, including much time spent at Casa Colina Hospital for Rehabilitation in Pomona, Wayne softened a lot and did numerous charity appearances. He fought for every bit of medical help he could find for his son and was deeply scarred by the eventual outcome.

When Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and Belmont in 1994, they were bittersweet victories for D. Wayne Lukas, who dedicated the wins to his son and used them to talk about Jeff.

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It is 20 years later now, and the toughness and irascibility of one D. Wayne Lukas remains. The memory of his son remains, but the challenges of his daily tasks continue to drive him, and in the process, he leaves plenty of scorched earth.

No matter what happens Saturday at the Belmont (to be run at Saratoga, while Belmont Park is being refurbished), D. Wayne Lukas will be somewhere in the middle of the fight. Expect to see him this time next year, responding to questions about his upcoming 90th birthday by grinning and saying he is not going to retire just because so many people want to get rid of him.

You can bank on it.

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Commentary: Irascible D. Wayne Lukas brings energy to an otherwise dull Belmont Stakes (2024)
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