D. Wayne Lukas isn't going anywhere. At 88, trainer just won his 15th Triple Crown race. (2024)

He still wakes up every morning at 3:30 to get to the barn. He still gets on the pony every day to watch his horses train. And though his operation isn’t the coast-to-coast behemoth it once was as he’s aged into his late 80s, D. Wayne Lukas is still the Stetson-and-sunglasses wearing embodiment of what thoroughbred racing is all about.

Train ’em hard.

Give ’em a shot.

Maybe, just maybe, win a big one.

It’s never changed for Lukas, from the moment he won his first Preakness with Codex in 1980 until he did it again Saturday for the seventh time with Seize The Grey.

None of us are forever, but Lukas is giving it a hell of a shot.

A few months shy of his 89th birthday, Lukas may have spoiled the Triple Crown chances of Mystik Dan, who finished a solid second. But let’s be clear: He's not a spoiler in this sport.

D. Wayne Lukas isn't going anywhere. At 88, trainer just won his 15th Triple Crown race. (2)

“I think they’re trying to get rid of me,” Lukas joked on NBC when asked about the long line of trainers from Bob Baffert to Kenny McPeek rushing to congratulate him. “They probably want me to retire. I don’t think that’ll happen.”

Thank goodness, because horse racing will be poorer the moment Lukas is no longer involved. Can you imagine loving a job so much that you’re still getting to work before dawn 15 or 20 years after most people are ready to retire? Can you imagine still being so good at it that you’re winning your 15th Triple Crown race 44 years after your first?

“Wayne’s an amazing guy,” McPeek, who trains Mystik Dan, said on NBC. “If I’m going to get beat, it’s fine to get beat by him. Over the years, I’ve been beat by him plenty of times.”

They all have. And in many ways, today’s big-time trainers enjoy the careers they have because of how Lukas changed the sport.

When he came on the scene in the late ’70s, having dominated quarter horse racing for a decade before that, thoroughbred racing was much more of a local endeavor. You were either a New York trainer or California guy. You ran on the Kentucky circuit or stayed in Florida. For the most part, these were small, mom-and-pop operations run by hardboots and backstretch lifers.

Lukas, whose background was actually as a high school basketball coach, had a completely different approach.

He vigorously recruited big-money owners, convincing them to spend millions at the yearling sales. His most important client, former San Diego Chargers owner Eugene Klein, purchased a $575,000 filly named Winning Colors in 1986 who would become Lukas’ first Derby winner.

But the Lukas aura was about far more than having owners with deep pockets. He professionalized every detail of his operation, from making sure the landscaping around his barn was pristine to wearing expensive suits on race day. And he developed a business model that would spread his horses around to all the nation’s major racetracks and make him a contender in almost every big race.

Whether it was the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup or a weekend of Grade 1 races at the high-end tracks like Saratoga or Keeneland, Lukas was always going to be a factor – and he often showed up with multiple contenders. “D. Wayne off the plane,” was the nickname that followed everywhere he went.

It’s basically the same blueprint that people like Baffert and Todd Pletcher, who worked under Lukas as the assistant in charge of his East Coast contingent, have copied with tremendous success.

There have, of course, been ups and downs.

At various points, Lukas has come under fire for some of his horses breaking down, including one, Union City, who suffered a tragic death in the 1993 Preakness when there were rumors the horse wasn’t sound. His 1996 Derby winner, Grindstone, never raced again. And in 1999, Charismatic broke his leg in the homestretch of the Belmont while trying to win the Triple Crown, though thankfully jockey Chris Antley’s quick actions that day helped save the horse’s life.

There’s been personal tragedy, too. In December 1993, his promising 2-year-old Tabasco Cat ran over Lukas’ son and assistant trainer, Jeff Lukas, fracturing his skull and sending him into a coma. Jeff Lukas eventually recovered and Tabasco Cat won both the Preakness and Belmont, but Jeff Lukas endured a lifetime of struggle to overcome the brain damage he suffered before passing away at age 58.

Then came the dry spell in the early 2000s after many of Lukas’ longtime clients either got out of horse racing or died off. Understandably, the new generation of rich owners gravitated toward the younger hotshots like Pletcher and Baffert.

Though Lukas’ business was forced to change, one thing never did: He always gave his horses a chance to win big races, even in spots where it didn’t always make sense on paper.

Earlier in his career, that meant taking risks like running a filly in the Kentucky Derby rather than the Kentucky Oaks. Sometimes, like with Winning Colors, it worked out. Other times, like with Hall of Famer Serena’s Song, it was an embarrassing 16th-place finish.

But running horses in races where others didn’t think Lukas had a shot has paid off way more for him than most of his peers. Charismatic, the aforementioned 1999 Derby and Preakness winner, ran in claiming races earlier in his career and was completely dismissed on Derby Day at 31-1 odds. In 2000, Lukas won the Belmont with 19-1 long shot Commendable, who had only won a maiden race before that. His lone victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic came in 1999 with Cat Thief, a legitimate surprise at 19-1.

Lukas still has that flair for winning a big race with a horse we didn't necessarily see coming. Seize The Grey looked nothing like a Triple Crown aspirant this spring when he finished third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park and seventh in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. But on Kentucky Derby Day, Lukas entered him in the Pat Day Mile, where he pulled a mild upset at 8-1.

Lukas decided to give him a shot two weeks later in a relatively weak Preakness, and it paid off in a major way when jockey Jaime Torres took him right to the lead on a sloppy track, set a moderate pace and had plenty in the tank to put away Mystik Dan and hold off the late charge of third-place Catching Freedom.

“It never gets old at this level,” Lukas said on NBC. “I love the competition.”

Back in 2013, after Lukas’ Oxbow pulled a Preakness surprise and ended his 13-year drought without a Triple Crown race win, he told The New York Times he wanted to break “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons’ record as the oldest trainer to win one at age 82.

“That’s one to gun for,” Lukas said. “It will mean I’m still in the game, and they haven’t furrowed me underneath the racetrack somewhere.”

It took him 11 years to finally do it. And who knows, maybe he’s not even finished yet.

D. Wayne Lukas isn't going anywhere. At 88, trainer just won his 15th Triple Crown race. (2024)
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