Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the road to the $3 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 2, at Churchill Downs.
This year’s series opens with a conversation with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is set to start American Butterfly in the $750,000, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Monday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
The 1 1/16-mile Southwest offers qualifying points for the Derby, crediting the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis. It highlights an impressive Presidents’ Day card that also includes the $500,000 Razorback Handicap for older horses and the $200,000 Bayakoa Stakes for older fillies and mares.
American Butterfly, a son of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, will be making the second start of his 3-year-old campaign. He opened the season with a second-place finish in an allowance-optional claiming race at Oaklawn on Feb. 2. American Butterfly displayed ability as a 2-year-old, winning when he made only his second career start at Saratog a Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and taking fourth in the Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes at seven furlongs there.
Lukas, 84, ranks as one of the premier trainers in the history of the game with 20 Breeders’ Cup victories and 14 wins in Triple Crown races, including four Kentucky Derby triumphs. He received four Eclipse Awards as the top trainer in North America and earned an Eclipse Award of Merit in 2013.
PEDULLA: How has American Butterfly progressed from 2 to 3?
LUKAS: Well, we want to always see 2-year-olds grow into a little more horse and get a little more strength and maturity as they turn to 3. He’s probably average for that. I don’t think he made a huge jump, but he’s gotten good mentally.
PEDULLA: Is it your feeling that by running in the Southwest there is potentially a lot to gain and not that much to lose?
LUKAS: We try to give these horses a chance to be great and let them disappoint us.
PEDULLA: Is Oaklawn a great place to be these days?
LUKAS: It is. I’ve said that for 20 years. I’ve even told my colleagues. They are finally waking up to the fact that this is a hell of a place to be.
PEDULLA: I know you went through some difficult back surgery last October. How are you doing?
LUKAS: They put a long plate in my back and the screws are like two inches long. But it really helped me. I’m moving better. I’m riding every day. I’m back riding on my pony for over five hours a day and I have been for over a month now. It took me three or four weeks to get moving again, but it was worth it. I was losing the feeling in my legs, so I had to do something.
PEDULLA: Why was it important for you to return to riding?
LUKAS: It’s been a way of life for me and a way I always felt comfortable training. I want to be close to a horse when he finishes his work. I want to be close to those exercise riders so I can coach them. One of the most important things is those four or five minutes after he’s finished his work and seeing how much he’s stressed, how much he put into it, how tired he is. That, I think, is the most important part of the morning. If you’ve got that coffee cup and you’re out in front of the grandstand, those guys miss all of that.
PEDULLA: What do you think of American Pharoah’s prospects as a stallion?
LUKAS: I have two of them and I really like them. I feel he has a great chance. I even went so far as to say he could replace A.P. Indy, a premier sire. I think in the next few years the American Pharoah’s are going to make a huge impact on the racing industry. I don’t have a dime invested or any skin in the game, but they are my kind of horses and I know from talking to Bob Baffert he feels the same way.
PEDULLA: Do you see American Pharoah in American Butterfly?
LUKAS: No, I don’t in that one. American Butterfly is a little bit smaller and finer boned than most of the American Pharoah’s. But the other one (unraced 3-year-old Fifty Grand) is an absolute clone. It’s scary how much he looks like him.
PEDULLA: I know a knee chip kept Fifty Grand from running at 2. Was that surgically removed?
LUKAS: Yup, it was and he’s back. He’s had two bullet works here. If I don’t have any more setbacks, he could be pretty special. These two works tipped his hand. He’s got the ability to run and he’s a big, grand, good-looking horse with a great pedigree.
PEDULLA: Is there a target race for his debut?
LUKAS: I’m kind of shooting for the last week in March.
PEDULLA: You have four Derby wins. Do you have another one in you?
LUKAS: Definitely. My health is great. I’m doing really well. I still have a great client base. We wake up every day with that on our minds. At this point in my career, the Breeders’ Cups and the Triple Crowns and the Grade 1s are probably the thing that drives you the most to keep going.