D. Wayne Lukas turns 86 in September and he prefers to stay seated for interviews, a reasonable request considering how long he towered above the industry.
One of the preeminent trainers of all time is back at the Preakness with a horse that seemingly does not belong, 30-1 Ram, but he is entitled to that, too.
Anyone who can rack up four Kentucky Derbys, six Preakness scores, four Belmont Stakes wins, and 20 Breeders’ Cup victories can pretty much do as he or she pleases.
Lukas was the picture of contentment as he sat outside the stakes barn at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.
“It brings back great memories. This place has been really good to me over the years,” he said. “I’ve done well here not only in the Preakness, but in the undercard races, too. I’m real, real comfortable here.”
He succeeded with his first Preakness starter, Codex, in 1980. And the hits kept coming. Tank’s Prospect (1985), Tabasco Cat (1994), Timber Country (1995), Charismatic (1999), and Oxbow (2013).
Interestingly, Lukas pointed to Tabasco Cat as the most memorable. The colt had run over his son, Jeff, in a horrible shedrow accident at Santa Anita in 1993. Jeff was never the same. He died in 2016 at age 58.
Lukas said of Tabasco Cat: “This was the horse my dear friend, Bill Young of Overbrook Farm, owned. So, to put him in the winner’s circle took some of the sting of that horse being the horse that ran over Jeff.”
Lukas is a survivor. Even a serious case of COVID-19 last August could not bring him down – but it threatened to. “It hit me hard, seriously hard,” he said. “I think I got as close as you can get and say you’re still here.”
The Hall of Famer among Hall of Famers also was hit hard when Robert Baker, a longtime client, died recently. “Bob kept saying, ‘We don’t have too many years left,’ meaning me and him,” Lukas recalled. “We’re the same age. And he died suddenly.”
Ram is owned by Baker’s widow, Christina, and William Mack. That, too, helps to explain Ram’s presence as the unlikeliest prospect in the 10-horse field. “His wife is emotional, I think, about coming here and being part of this again,” Lukas said.
Ram drew the rail and will be ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr. He is certainly bred for the job. He is a son of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah that was purchased for $375,000 at Keeneland’s September yearling sale. He has been slow to develop, however, mentally and physically. He came up empty in four starts as a juvenile.
He did not break through until his eighth race lifetime, when he was made available for a $50,000 claiming price in a 1 1/16-mile race on April 16 at Oaklawn Park. He assumed a stalking position before pouncing for a two-length decision. A more encouraging sign came when he scooted off by 3 1/2 lengths in a one-mile allowance race that kicked off the Kentucky Derby program.
Still, Lukas recognizes the enormous leap from an allowance to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
“I don’t think we can win it. I think we can probably be on the board, and we may not even do that,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll load him and go home. We don’t have to wake up saying, ‘God, I have to prove I can train one of these things.’ ”
The need to prove anything is long gone. So why did Lukas spend nine hours riding shotgun in the van that brought Ram from Churchill Downs to Pimlico? What drives him to arrive at the barn when those half his age are enjoying sweet sleep?
“I enjoy it so much. I am not one that could sit back,” Lukas said. “I’m 85, going to be 86 in a few months. I need something to focus on, something to challenge me, or I don’t think I’d be happy.”