Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won four Kentucky Derbies, 13 Triple Crown races and 17 races in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. He has trained 22 champions and earned four Eclipse Awards that honored him as the nation's top trainer. But, just as importantly, Lukas has served as a mentor to a group of former assistant trainers who have grown to become important trainers in their own right. That group that includes Todd Pletcher, Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig and Bobby Barnett.
Lukas' influence will be a factor in Saturday's Epsom Derby (Eng-I) at Great Britain's Epsom Downs. One of the trainers participating in the 1 1/2-mile British classic is Gerard Butler, a former Lukas assistant. He will saddle Shield, a son of Barathea and winner of the Sandown Park Classic Trial, in the classic at Epsom.
Butler, 37, worked with Lukas in the early 1990's in the era of Lukas' Triple Crown successes with Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Tabasco Cat and Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch. Lukas remembers Butler's three-year apprenticeship in his operation well.
"He was one of my favorite kids, but I really was hard on him," Lukas said. "You talk about tough love. I don't know why he didn't walk off time and time again. I blistered his ass for everything."
Although he took a stern approach with him, Lukas said he recognized Butler's enormous potential.
"He really wanted it badly," said Lukas. "I knew he'd be successful."
Lukas also has another connection to the Epsom Derby in Mark Weld, the son and top assistant to trainer Dermot Weld, who trains Epsom favorite Refuse To Bend. The younger Weld also worked under Lukas.
"Dermot sent him over," Lukas recalled. "Dermot called me and said 'I want you to take my son for two years.' I was very fond of Mark, too."
Both Butler and the younger Weld worked and learned in Lukas' Southern California stable.
"Both of them got to where I was giving them responsibility," he said, "I was sending them off with stakes horses and the like."