As a five-time winner of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas knows what it takes to succeed in the second leg of the Triple Crown. This year, he’s at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland with Bluegrass Hall’s homebred longshot Optimizer, who finished 11th in the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“It is a new day, a new cast of characters, a new track, and a new distance, so it changes a little bit from the Derby,” said Lukas May 18. “But I think the big thing is that you have to have a horse that has that bounce-back ability. He’s got to be sound and he’s got to be one of those horses that gets his energy back in the two-week span (between the Derby and Preakness); I think that’s real important.
“Then,” Lukas added, “you just have to have your horse ready on the right day. I find that the horses that ran well in the Derby usually run well here. Every once a while we get a local horse like Deputed Testamony who will jump up and win, but generally speaking, the horses that run well in the Derby will run well here.”
Lukas and two other Hall of Famers, Bob Baffert and Thomas J. Healey, are the second-winningest trainers in Preakness history. Only Hall of Famer R.W. Walden has more, with seven victories in the 1800s. Lukas, 76, picked up his wins with Codex (1980), Tank's Prospect (1985), Tabasco Cat (1994), Timber Country (1995), and Charismatic (1999). His best performers since Charismatic, Proud Citizen and Scrimshaw, were third in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
According to Lukas, Optimizer’s most formidable opponents in 2012’s edition of the May 18 Preakness are, not surprisingly, Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another and runner-up Bodemeister , who sizzled on the front end in the Run for the Roses before being passed late in the race.
“If you’re going to play the exacta, you better box them,” Lukas said. “You can’t go with one over the top of the other one. The Derby winner does not give me any more confidence in this race than Bodemeister. Just because he (I’ll Take Another) won the Derby doesn’t mean he has to win this one.”
Bodemeister, in Lukas’ opinion, will be hard to beat.
“Bodemeister has got to have less than his best day,” the trainer said. “On the front end, with his brilliance, he might be a dominant thing this year. I don’t see anybody that, if they run to their form, so to speak, would be able to match him with that turn of foot that he has. But having said that, somebody may come out of their game plan and get into the race a little earlier.
"But if they go with Bodemeister, they’re not going to be around at the end, I don’t think. I don’t see any horse that can come out of his game plan, chase him, and win. It’s just like Winning Colors' year (in the Kentucky Derby) when I told everybody, ‘We’re going to go to the lead; come with us if you want to and see how you get along.’ He (Bodemeister) has got one dimension that the rest don’t have.”
Lukas’ best hope with Optimizer is for another horse to seriously challenge Bodemeister in the Preakness’ opening stages.
“I’m looking for somebody to pressure him early enough and then maybe at the three-eighths or the half-mile pole, we’ll start closing on him.” Lukas said. “All I need for my horse after that is a place to run. My horse will finish real strong if he gets a chance to run. He can’t be blocked like he was in the Kentucky Derby and behind and shuffled in like he was in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I).”
Optimizer’s top effort this year was a runner-up finish to Secret Circle in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), when he was beaten by only three-quarters of a length. The 3-year-old English Channel – Indy Pick colt was ninth in both the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and the Arkanas Derby.
To succeed in the Preakness, Optmizer “has to run better than he ever has before and he has to have the right trip,” Lukas said. .