They were there to roast their mentor, but by the end of the night April 17 at the Keeneland sales pavilion, the seven prominent trainers who cut their teeth under legendary D. Wayne Lukas ended up toasting their former boss.
After all, it’s not easy to poke someone as iconic as Lukas, who has personified perfection throughout his career. Lukas is often referred to as “coach,” a nickname not only reflecting his stint as a high school basketball coach in his native Wisconsin but also his ability to teach generations of horsemen and women.
Lukas, who turns 82 Sept. 2, is well-known for his work ethic and continues to oversee his stable from horseback daily. Among his many accomplishments are 14 classic victories, including four Kentucky Derbys (G1) with Charismatic, Grindstone, Thunder Gulch, and the filly Winning Colors. He was honored with Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer on four occasions and received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2013.
The roast, which capped the Consignor and Commercial Breeders Association’s educational symposium, began with an hilarious monologue by veteran track announcer Frank Mirahmadi, who is well-known for his imitations.
Decked out in a black cowboy hat, black gloves, and sunglasses—mimicking Lukas’ typical wardrobe—Mirahmadi went through a litany of imitations of Lukas and his competitors and clients, as well as other track announcers as he relived memorable moments Hall of Fame conditioner’s career. The crowd roared at Mirahmadi’s shtick, which included particularly well-done imitations of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat, and fellow announcer Trevor Denman.
To attempt to describe Mirahmadi’s would do it an injustice; suffice to say it is well worth trying to find on Youtube (see a clip from the BloodHorse Instagram). Despite all the champions Lukas has trained, Mirahmadi said he believed the conditioner’s best job was his work with Farma Way, whose five graded stakes wins in 1991 included a sweep of the handicap series at Santa Anita Park from the seven-furlong San Carlos (G2) to the Santa Anita Handicap (G1).
“Without doubt to me his work with Farma Way was ubelieveable,” Mirahmadi said. “That was an amazing training job and he is an amazing trainer.”
After a video produced by Keeneland’s director of broadcast services G. D. Hieronymus highlighting Lukas’ career was shown, the trainer was joined on the stage by trainers Mark Hennig, Mike Maker, Kieran McLaughlin, Ron Moquett, Todd Pletcher, Dallas Stewart, and George Weaver, all of whom worked for the Lukas stable.
Before the personal recollections began, another video offered comments from Baffert, former Lukas assistant Randy Bradshaw, and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.
McLaughlin related how, despite Lukas’ better efforts, he was never able to learn to ride a stable pony.
“He’s been my mentor and my favorite person in life who has taught me so much, but he failed at one thing,” McLaughlin recalled. “He tried his damndest and bought a pony that cost about $20,000 and was literally push button, but I never learned to ride a pony. I am surprised I was able to keep my job for seven years, but I have a lot of fond memories. He was good on the track and off the track to me.”
Stewart said Lukas commented on his height the first time he met the new stable hand by asking: “I’m not a basketball coach any more, do you ride horses?”
During its heyday, the Lukas stable was outfitted with the best travel arrangements and equipment, all bearing the Lukas name, Stewart said. “Man we had planes. We had napkins on the planes. We had everything, but everything had his name on it,” he said.
While Lukas was a detail-oriented task master, making sure that the stable ponies were cared for was a priority, Stewart said.
“If he came to town and your pony was out of line, you were going to lose your job. Your pony had better be taken care of. More than anything, that’s one thing he prided himself on.”
Pletcher, who has surpassed many of the training milestones previously held by his mentor, said Lukas’ success was an attractive lure to aspiring horsemen such as himself.
“Everyone could recognize it was the opportunity of a lifetime to get a chance to work with someone that terrific, that great. It was an unbelievable experience for all of us.”
Lukas relayed stories of working with such elite owners as William T. Young, Eugene Klein, and Bob French, and was obviously appreciative of the opportunity to share the stage with his former assistants.
“First of all, I don’t remember these guys being so warm and fuzzy,” Lukas said. “The horses come and go and the champions are great. But to work with these guys, they put me on their shoulders and put me right into the Hall of Fame. I mean that sincerely.”
With all the laughs and warm memories, the event was somewhat bittersweet due to the absence of Jeff Lukas, the trainer’s son and former assistant who died in March 2016.
“I would like to express how sorry Jeff isn’t here to take part in the program,” Hennig said. “He was part of our lives.”
“One of the things I am proudest of is the relationship they had with my own son, Jeff,” Lukas said. “Unbelievable how they all got along. A lot of times the boss’s kid isn’t exactly the most popular guy in the shedrow. I can never thank them enough for that.”