Justify looked dominant at the Kentucky Derby. Could we be seeing another Triple Crown winner this year?
USA TODAY Sports
BALTIMORE — Even at age 82, D. Wayne Lukas climbs aboard his pony Starbuck every morning before 6 a.m. to oversee the training of his horses, a routine for which he has made no compromise over the decades.
Certainly, there have been some other concessions along the way. Lukas no longer operates a coast-to-coast powerhouse like he did in the 1980s and 90s when he won Grade 1 races at a breakneck pace, and calls himself more “realistic” than he once was about expecting victories. Just this week, he acknowledged he will probably need to adjust the sign on his barn back at Churchill Downs proclaiming a record 14 Triple Crown victories assuming Bob Baffert ties him Saturday at the Preakness with Justify.
But one thing will never change with Lukas as long as he trains horses. No matter how much of a chance he has on paper, Lukas remains blissfully unafraid of taking a shot in big races, even with horses who seem hopelessly overmatched.
That will be the case once again Saturday with two Lukas-trained entries in Bravazo and Sporting Chance, neither of whom will be given much of a shot by bettors to take down Justify.
But in Lukas’ barn, you can’t win if you don’t enter. And sometimes, as he’s proven over and over again, the longshots come in.
“I get paid to spoil the dream,” he said. “I’ll go over there with a realistic approach and not worry too much about it. We’ll see what happens. I’ve surprised them here before, so maybe it’ll be in the cards again.”
Even in his heyday when Lukas often had the favorite in big races, he was known for entering horses in spots that seemed to be above their heads, maintaining a sometimes irrational belief in their talent level even if they got beat over and over again.
That’s how you end up with Lukas-trained Cat Thief upsetting the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic at 19-to-1 after winning just one of 11 races that year and Charismatic going from low-level claiming races to winning the Kentucky Derby at 31-to-1.
Lukas’ notable upsets of more recent vintage include Will Take Charge, a non-factor in the Triple Crown, winning the 2013 Travers at 10-to-1, Take Charge Brandi shocking the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies field at 30-to-1 and, of course, his 2013 Preakness triumph with 15-to-1 Oxbow.
“That’s when he does the most damage is when nobody’s talking about him,” said Baffert, who, like Lukas, emerged from the quarter horse ranks and built a thoroughbred empire geared toward classic races and training for speed.
Before Lukas, it was practically unheard of to try and dominate races on a national basis or to have outposts at multiple tracks around the country. But as a former high school basketball coach with no formal lineage to a training mentor, he tried new things and bucked all kinds of conventions from how to train in the mornings to regularly running his top fillies against colts, which was pretty much unheard of at the time.
Eventually, he dominated the sport to the tune of $278 million in purse money over the course of his career.
“He’s always been my idol,” Baffert said. “He’s the one who opened the floodgates for the quarter horse guys. He completely changed quarter horse racing. He completely changed thoroughbred racing. I wanted to be like Wayne Lukas.”
In fact, for all of today’s top trainers like Todd Pletcher (a former Lukas assistant), Chad Brown or Dale Romans, Lukas was the standard and his stable was the model in everything from how his horses shipped in and won to the way his barns were painted and manicured to project the image of a high-class operation.
Several of Lukas’ former assistants like Pletcher, Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig and Kiaran McLaughlin have gone on to apply the same blueprint to their own stables with significant success.
Meanwhile, Lukas is still plugging along with no plans to give it up, especially as long as he can compete in big races. Though it isn’t always a fairytale — only one of his last 11 Preakness entries has finished in the top three — he’s won enough times at long odds that he can’t be dismissed.
Though Bravazo has won just 3-of-9 starts, he ran a good enough sixth in the Kentucky Derby despite traffic trouble that he could be a closing threat in the Preakness if somehow Justify doesn’t run his race. Sporting Chance notched a win last year in the Grade 1 Hopeful, one of the biggest races for 2-year olds, suggesting that perhaps he has enough class to compete in the Triple Crown.
In both cases it’s a longshot, but that’s fine with Lukas. Still grinding away at an age when most of his contemporaries have left the game, he’s content to play the role of spoiler.
“I enjoy it probably more now,” Lukas said. “You don’t know how many more there are left, so you take advantage of it and embrace it and at 82 I embrace it a little more. I’m more realistic about how many more there are out there.”