"If they flatter, you have a tendency not to believe them. If they criticize you, you have a tendency not to like them. But if you praise them and encourage them, they'll never forget you. Those are the three things I always tell my students." - D. Wayne Lukas
Look at the shedrow of Todd A. Pletcher, and it's impossible to miss the impact of his Hall of Fame mentor.
There is the impeccably manicured greenery, and the no-nonsense precision at which sets of high-quality stock are prepared and sent to the track. Even the lettering that features Pletcher's initials is crafted in the same font as the barn of the man responsible for one of the great feeder programs in all of racing.
The shadow cast by D. Wayne Lukas is longer than any stretch, but it's one his seven-time Eclipse Award-winning protégé stepped out of some time ago—even before he surpassed his famed teacher as Thoroughbred racing's all-time leading trainer by earnings. Thanks in part to the lessons instilled by the former, Pletcher is his own man now, with the enviable problem of constantly trying to kick his own bar of success to ever-higher levels.
Lukas deflects the credit for helping craft Pletcher's success. But the 82-year-old legend is still both fiercely protective and immeasurably proud, especially when he gets to witness his most successful former assistant put his own stamp on the achievements that define the game.
"Frankly, he was going to be good whether or not he ever met me," Lukas said. "And he probably helped me as much as I helped him. But he knows (the advice) is there if ever he needs it."
There are few better than Lukas to advise on what it takes to prevail in the American classics. His 14 Triple Crown race victories stand above all his peers. And because he has the deepest understanding of how arduous such triumphs are, he admittedly fell over himself May 6 as his watched Pletcher's Always Dreaming roll to a 2 3/4-length win in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), knowing full well the emotional cut of that victory went far deeper than his "adopted son" was ever going to let on.
Though he has hoisted the golden Kentucky Derby trophy four times—with more to come, he insists—Lukas still remembers when his illustrious stable in the 1980s faced its share of criticism for its lack of success in the 10-furlong test until Winning Colors broke the seal in 1988. While he says he stays away from reading what supposed pundits pen, he fielded his share of inquiries as to why Pletcher "only" had one Kentucky Derby win prior to Always Dreaming, and has been asked since if May 20 will be the day Pletcher breaks his 0-for-8 record in the Preakness Stakes (G1).
To listen to the old basketball coach tell it, the game he changed has evolved to the point where it is harder than ever to even get to the classics—much less emerge with the hardware. And what he sees in Pletcher's record of four Triple Crown race wins heading into Saturday is someone who has some of the most illustrious, yet demanding, clients in the business—and has managed to repeatedly pull of the feat of putting them front and center in racing's biggest spots.
"I defended him (Derby) week. I jumped right in the middle of it and said 'Do you realize how hard it is to get one here? How about getting 48 of them here? That's an achievement if you never win the damn thing,'" Lukas said. "Getting them there has gotten to be a lot more difficult than it used to be 20 years ago. Just getting enough points to be in the race and satisfying your clientele ... the clientele dictates so much of what we do now. It's not like the old days, when an owner would ask if he could come look at his horse in the barn. Now they get really involved.
"Simply getting them to this point with the new system is an achievement in itself."
When Pletcher made the leap in 1995 to go out on his own after seven years as Lukas' assistant, he admitted the fear was his education in one of the all-time operations wouldn't necessarily translate into him picking up the mantle.
"It was a very intimidating situation to leave and go out on my own when I did. In December 1995 we had the strongest stable in the world probably, and to leave a secure assistant job around the best horses that were in training at that time—it was a tough decision to make," Pletcher recalled. "I didn't really know what to expect. I was just hoping to accumulate enough horses to get going and establish a reputation.
"I didn't really anticipate what it would grow into, and it just sort of evolved along the way. And I think having worked for Wayne, and being in an organization like his, certainly helped me be able to adapt to that type of growth."
From a logistical standpoint, Pletcher departed his old boss with the backing of some of the sport's elite, most notably that of John Magnier's Coolmore Stud operation. Having first-hand knowledge of how to handle a widescale operation was one of the key pieces of knowledge the now 49-year-old Pletcher absorbed and applied to his own barn in its ascent as a perpetual powerhouse. The biggest thing Lukas wanted to pass on, however, was the confidence for Pletcher to take what was shown to him and uncover ways to make the execution even better.
"I'm sure he took some things from us, especially the experience in Triple Crown races, but on the other hand I think he has created his own legacy and made some changes he thought were right, too," Lukas said. "I see our organization in the way he runs his barn. He always had that discipline. But he saw the mistakes I made, saw the adjustments I probably made, and was able to develop his own system, obviously."
The development of Always Dreaming could be viewed as a mix of both the best of Lukas's teachings and Pletcher's own philosophies coming together in a perfect storm. From the time the son of Bodemeister came into Pletcher's care in September after previously being trained by Dominick Schettino, he allowed the thoughts in the back of his mind to start plotting the best path to get the obviously talented colt to the first Saturday in May.
Where Lukas was never afraid to attack the prep races guns blazing, Pletcher showed restraint in not sending Always Dreaming to the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) following his maiden-breaking win, and instead put more foundation into him by opting for an allowance test. And when the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) winner was so on the muscle at Churchill Downs leading into the Derby that he was threatening to run his race in the mornings, Pletcher made the crucial call to add draw reins to the colt, a testament to his mentor's history of preaching the value of heeding his gut above all the noise.
"I always felt like one of Wayne's many strengths was when he got a horse in form, his ability to maintain them in form for a long time. So you try and take some of those principles away," Pletcher said.
Lukas isn't shy about saying he still hopes Pletcher is open to learning from his past failings.
In his barn's heyday, Lukas can recall winning "four to five grade 1 races on a single weekend" and being so consumed about what was next that he rarely allowed himself moments to savor.
"I'd be grabbing the condition book saying 'Where is the next one?' when I should have really relished it and embraced those races," Lukas said.
As he watches his former student bounce from obligation to obligation, which comes with having the Derby winner, Lukas sees himself and wants Pletcher to do better—preferably starting Saturday.
"I was so proud of him (after the Derby), because I knew the pressure he was feeling and ... I don't think he enjoyed the Derby," Lukas said. "With that many horses and that many people pulling at him, I told the boys at the barn, if something happens to me and you get to where he's at, enjoy it. I think it was a more of a relief when that colt ran so well. I think he took a deep breath and said 'OK, we've got it. On to the next thing.'
"I don't think he's soaking in the moment as much as he should."