Source: USA TODAY
BALTIMORE — Half a dozen reporters huddled in a misty rain a little after 4 Sunday morning, waiting in the dark at the Pimlico barns for the winningest trainer in Triple Crown history to make a promised appearance.
D. Wayne Lukas had told the press corps the night before — in the afterglow of Oxbow’s wire-to-wire win in the Preakness that gave Lukas his record 14th Triple Crown win — he’d be taking his horses home at 4:30 a.m.
Really? Couldn’t he make it a bit later, say, 5:30?
“Some of us in this great nation get up and get after it in the morning,” Lukas said then. “Others sleep in.”
And so the reporters dutifully arrived at the track at 4 a.m. and found no one but security guards at their posts, horses in their stalls and early birds chirping in the pines. Oxbow poked his head out of Stall 24 at one point and looked around, apparently unaware of the stir he’d caused across the racing world only hours earlier.
At last, at 4:41 a.m., Lukas sauntered up, sized up the contingent waiting for him and pronounced, “I’m impressed.” He said he woke up at 10 minutes before 3 and had been held up just a bit by his drivers.
“You know me well enough that if I said 4:30, that son of a bitch is going to be there at 4 and leave us,” Lukas said, chuckling with the cadre that had by now swelled to eight.
So, how had he celebrated history? Lukas said he got back to the hotel after the Preakness and had a plate of hot apple pie topped by a double scoop of ice cream. And then went to sleep. He wanted to be on the road early to keep his horses on their routines.
“I’ll get them home at feeding time, just about,” he said. “By the time I get them home and give them a bath, it’ll be about 5 o’clock and they’ll eat right on schedule.”
Why not send the staff with the horses and take a plane back to Louisville? “Because things happen,” he said. If a truck breaks down, or something else should occur, he wants to be there to make the decisions.
“I’ve always rode with the horses,” he said. “Used to on the airplanes stand with them, you know, but we don’t fly much anymore.”
Lukas pointed at his staff, busy with the horses and loading gear onto the trucks in the dank darkness. “I love my staff,” he said. “Look at those guys. Not a word said. Everybody knows exactly what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go. … No loud talking. Not one of those guys had a beer last night.”
Lukas is 77. Nobody asked how much longer he wants to do this. He sort of answered it anyway. “This is a really easy game, really, in a lot of ways,” he said. “It really is. The horse is the most important ingredient. I don’t do anything physical. Get out on the pony, ride out there, sit around, make decisions, nothing to it. Do it forever.”
Then he summarized his duties: “Point to these guys, ‘Do this, do that. Pick this up.’ Talk to you guys.” And here he enjoyed an early-morning horse laugh.
He said he was impressed by Oxbow’s early lead: “That rascal was opening six, seven, eight lengths on the gallop out. … I was amazed how fresh he was after the race. … He didn’t even break a sweat.”
Lukas said he and jockey Gary Stevens talked about taking a lead if it was offered.
“We’re just going to take what comes easy,” he said. “We’re not going to give up what they let us have. Any athletic event, I don’t care if it’s basketball, football, or what it is, you take what they give you.”
Praise poured in from his peers for the way Lukas got his Preakness winner ready.
“It was a masterful job,” Tom Amoss, trainer of third-place finisher Mylute said of Lukas. “As far as Wayne is concerned, you’ve got to tip your hat to him. Over the last year he’s made a remarkable comeback and put himself where he used to be, which is at the top of the trainers’ charts.”
Lukas said Oxbow will run in the Belmont in three weeks, unless he should give some reason not. Lukas knew Oxbow was in good shape Saturday after three-quarters of a mile.
“That stride, that cruising speed that he gets into,” he said. “I turned to the lieutenant governor, and he doesn’t know fractions from what, but I just said to him, because he was the only guy standing next to me, ‘If we get a 1:13 three-quarters here, it’s over,’ and it flashed up and he said, ‘How’s that?’ And I said. ‘Perfect. Here we go.’ “
Lukas had two other horses in the race but knew Oxbow was his best shot. “I was trying to be politically correct all week” and not say that publicly. “I thought he was the toughest horse.”
Lukas said he’d pass the time on the ride back listening to George Strait and Toby Keith. “The drivers and the other guys don’t like it,” he said, “but I get all the votes.”
He hopes the Belmont goes more smoothly than last year, when one of his horses reared up and struck Lukas on the head a few days before the race. I’ve still got that little scar there to show for it,” Lukas said, pointing at the top of his head. “I hope that doctor doesn’t come by. I don’t think I paid her.”
He’d said the night before that they’d drive straight through, maybe stop at Wendy’s twice. So, do people recognize the Hall of Fame trainer at road stops?
“If you’re in the race horse business, your notoriety is in a one-block area, for sure,” he said. “I always tell people we’re famous for about three blocks from Churchill Downs.”
With that the 14-time Triple Crown winner took his leave. A few minutes later he added one last point in the sweetness of the light morning rain. He remembered loading up the next day after Codex had won the first of Lukas’ six Preakness victories,in 1980.
“Thirty-three years ago,” he said, “and it was misty, just like this.”
Possible Belmont Stakes entries
Possible entries for the 145th Belmont Stakes on June 8 at Belmont Park, according to the New York Racing Association:
Horse Trainer Last race
Oxbow; D. Wayne Lukas; Won Preakness
Freedom Child; Tom Albertrani; Won Peter Pan Stakes
Golden Soul; Dallas Stewart; Second, Kentucky Derby
Overanalyze; Todd Pletcher; 11th, Kentucky Derby
Palace Malice; Todd Pletcher; 12th, Kentucky Derby
Revolutionary; Todd Pletcher; 3rd, Kentucky Derby
Code West; Bob Baffert; Won allowance, Pimlico
Power Broker; Bob Baffert; Won allowance, Churchill Downs
Itsmyluckyday; Eddie Plesa Jr.; Second, Preakness