Lukas thought so much of Secret Oath that had sent her against the boys in the April 2 Arkansas Derby in her prior race. His hopes of advancing to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve were dashed when the daughter of Arrogate finished third. The Oaks made one heck of a consolation prize for the octogenarian, who was gravely ill with COVID-19 last year.
“I love the big ones,” Lukas said during a post-race NBC interview. “These are the ones you play for.”
A crowd of 100,188 watched Lukas equal Woody Stephens with his fifth Oaks victory and first since Seaside Attraction earned the lilies in 1990. He tasted his first Oaks success when Bill Shoemaker guided Blush With Pride home in 1982. His other winners were Lucky Lucky Lucky (1984) and Open Mind (1989).
Lukas, a Hall of Famer since 1999, relishes challenges. He sure would not mind if he gets the go-ahead to tackle males in the May 21 Preakness Stakes.
“It’s an option. The Black-Eyed Susan (Stakes) is an option,” he said. “You have to look at everything when you are trying to develop a career to the championship level.”
Lukas also is known for the many prominent trainers who learned their early lessons from him. Secret Oath, ridden for the first time by Luis Saez, bested favored Nest by two lengths. Nest is trained by Todd Pletcher, a Lukas mentee.
Longshot Desert Dawn finished half a length behind hard-trying Nest in third followed by previously undefeated Echo Zulu and Kathleen O., who also was dealt her first defeat.
“I’m really happy for Wayne,” Pletcher said. “If I couldn’t win this race, I was rooting for him.”
Legendary Lukas in the winner’s circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Steve Asmussen, who conditions Echo Zulu, also saluted Lukas. “It is a beautiful moment for Wayne, unbelievably deserving with a great mare,” he said. Echo Zulu had a delayed start to her season, leading the 2-year-old champion to have only one prep race for the Oaks. It hurt, too, that she chased a crackling pace set by longshot Yuugiri.
Pletcher thought Nest might have loomed larger with a better trip under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. “Irad told me he couldn’t get out the whole race. He had to wait and wait,” Pletcher said. “When he finally got loose, she ran big.”
Secret Oath won for the fifth time in eight starts with a pair of third-place finishes. With the winner’s share of $705,250 from the $1.25 million Oaks, her lifetime earnings ballooned to $1,295,417.
The 3-year-old began to turn heads when she rattled off three consecutive victories at Oaklawn Park by a combined 23 lengths ahead of the Arkansas Derby.
“The thing that developed in her was that devastating kick,” Lukas said. “We tried to develop that and get some relaxation with it.”
That devastating kick was very much on display when she uncorked a bold and decisive five-wide move around the final turn in the 148th Oaks. She completed the demanding mile and an eighth in 1:49.44 on a track listed as good due to afternoon showers. Despite the high-caliber field of 14, no rival threatened her once she took command.
“Wayne can still train!” track announcer Travis Stone exclaimed as Secret Oath flashed across the wire.
Lukas owns four Kentucky Derby wins, the last of those with former claimer Charismatic in 1999. Although he does not have the high-powered clientele he once did and he walked with the aid of a cane, time has not taken any of his passion.
“I’m still getting up as early as I was when I was 40,” he said. “I’m still on that pony.”
Lukas emphasized that he learns something from every horse he trained. “You continue learning every day and they’re teaching every day,” he said.
Another storybook element to this Oaks involved victorious breeders and owners Stacy and Rob Mitchell of Briland Farm in Lexington. They got their start in the industry when they purchased a mare named Chao Praya for $1 at the urging of a friend. The friend thought the mare would make good company for a quarter horse that Stacy rode.
Robert described the couple as “simple country folk.” He might have been underselling them. His primary occupation is that of a surgeon, one who is sure to be hands on with his horses as well.