Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has long been revered as “The Coach.”
His mentoring of Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart, and George Weaver, among others, allowed them to turn into highly-respected trainers. Beyond that, he traces his start in sports to his work as a high school basketball coach in his native state of Wisconsin before he ultimately built a legendary, game-changing career as a Thoroughbred trainer.
Lukas’ body of work is so rare that he will become only the third recipient of the Breeders’ Cup Sports and Racing Excellence Award during ceremonies on Oct. 31 at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
“Wayne’s career migration from coaching sports to his extraordinary mastery of training Thoroughbred champions and record-breaking achievements has been truly remarkable over the last 40 years,” said Craig Fravel, Breeders’ Cup president and chief executive officer.
Lukas, 83, will be only the third recipient of the Sports and Racing Excellence Award. South African Gary Player, a noted breeder of Thoroughbreds who swept nine majors during his extraordinary golfing career, was the first to be so honored, in 2009. The late Dick Enberg, host of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup telecast for NBC in 1984, was saluted last year at Del Mar.
“I look back and I reflect that maybe I was able to raise the bar a little bit,” Lukas said.
The presentation to Lukas will accompany the unveiling of 16,000 square feet of new and renovated exhibition space at the Museum as part of a $6.5 million expansion that Churchill Downs helped to launch with a $100,000 donation. In addition, Maker’s Mark has chosen Lukas to be the first trainer depicted on one of its bottles. Each sells for $400, with proceeds benefitting Old Friends Farm in Georgetown, Ky., and the Derby Museum.
Maker’s Mark could not have made a better choice. Lukas still holds a substantial lead in Breeders’ Cup victories with 20, leaving fellow Hall of Famer Bob Baffert (14) and Aidan O’Brien (12) with significant ground to close. Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott are tied for fourth with 10 victories apiece. With $22,580,520 in Breeders' Cup earnings, Lukas trails only Baffert ($27,605,000).
Churchill Downs, of course, will always hold a special place in Lukas’ heart. He boasts four Kentucky Derby triumphs among his 14 Triple Crown wins. In a stretch that will likely never be duplicated, he dominated the Triple Crown scene by producing six wins in a row. The remarkable streak opened with Tabasco Cat pouncing in the 1994 Preakness and continued through the 1996 Derby, when Grindstone ground out a memorable victory against game Cavonnier.
There is nothing in Lukas’ background to suggest that such accomplishments would be possible. As he said, “I wasn’t born in a stall in Lexington.”
He was born in Antigo, Wis., and was raised on a dairy farm. He learned about horses at an early age, not horse racing.
He earned his master’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin before teaching and coaching at the high school level for nine years. He began training quarter horses in California in 1968 and oversaw 23 such champions before he turned to Thoroughbreds full-time in 1978. He went on to pace all North American trainers in earnings 14 times, gaining induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1999.
Pletcher noted that statistics alone barely scratch the surface of Lukas’ impact. “I think he’s the most influential trainer on the industry of all time,” he said. “He changed the way the game is played in a lot of ways, played it at the highest level for a number of years, and the Breeders’ Cup is the greatest example of that.”
Pletcher continued, “Wayne sort of pioneered the larger stables and taking advantage of being able to run in multiple places and taking horses to the right place.”
Lukas embraced the Breeders’ Cup from the moment he heard of the concept. “I think you’ve got to treat it like the Triple Crown,” he said. “You’ve got to point to it and make it a significant part of what you want to do with these horses.”
Lukas’ work with 2-year-olds is extraordinary. Twilight Ridge’s success in the 1985 Juvenile Fillies was the first of six wins in that race. He reached the Juvenile winner’s circle five times. He even prevailed with a maiden, when Hightail pulled a 15-1 stunner in the 2012 Juvenile Sprint.
Lukas sent out four Distaff champions, including a seemingly impossible longshot with Spain in 2000. She generated the one of the highest payoffs in Cup history at $113. Gulch (1988) and Orientate (2002) displayed blistering speed when they delivered in the Sprint. His pursuit of the Classic was rewarded by Cat Thief (1999). He even won on the grass, with Steinlen in the 1989 Mile.
Beyond honoring Lukas, the Museum will use its much-needed new space to open an exhibit that documents his storied career.
“It’s going to be a pretty good week,” Lukas said.