D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher at Churchill Downs in 2007

D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher at Churchill Downs in 2007

Anne M. Eberhardt/Blood-Horse Publications

Nack BackTrack: Lukas Looks for One More Score

This week, BackTrack celebrates the late Bill Nack's work for BloodHorse.

The 133rd Run for the Roses had ended just moments earlier, and from the elevated aerie of his box seat in section 318 at Churchill Downs, trainer D. Wayne Lukas peered down at the ant-like bodies streaming along the turf course toward the winner's circle. Trainer Carl Nafzger was moving with the jubilant crowd, along with owner Jim Tafel, and right behind them now came jockey Calvin Borel, his feet out of the stirrups and his arms in the air, riding the victorious Street Sense  to that horseshoe-shaped enclosure by the tote board to the place Lukas fondly calls "the charmed circle reserved only for the Kentucky Derby winners."

Lukas did not have a horse in this Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). In fact, this is the first renewal in 27 years in which none of the Big Three—Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito—saddled a horse for the race. So there was D. Wayne, looking very natty in his thousand-dollar threads, observing the Derby from afar. By the way, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of corporate suits and bottom-liners, the man who has saddled a record 42 Derby horses was denied a paddock pass for the very race he has done more to promote than any living American. No matter. A sliver of a smile creased the corners of his mouth. 

"See all those people down there?" Lukas was saying as he surveyed the tumultuous scene below. "What they are having is an out-of-body experience. It's an experience that changes you forever. You float to the winner's circle. Your feet don't even touch the ground. Believe me. I know."

Indeed, no one knows that natural high, that heady stew of elation and euphoria, any better than Darrell Wayne Lukas. The man has won four Kentucky Derbys in his surpassing career—while revolutionizing the business of training and campaigning horses along the way—and today he looks back on his life as a Thoroughbred conditioner with an uncommon mixture of pride and humility that is tinged only slightly by the darker hues of regret.

Hard to believe that Lukas turns 72 in September, and it really seems like no time at all since the days when he first started buying all those fancy yearlings at Keeneland, stirring the galleries with pallets of mint-fresh Texas and California money, and he was bringing Terlingua to the races and so many offspring of her finest son, Storm Cat. By then he was studying condition books like a divinity student poring over biblical texts, boldly flying horses hither and yon, running fillies against colts, racking up new earnings records, teaching this ancient sport how to re-invent itself and keep pace in the high-tech, ever-fast-moving world of the late 20th century.

It is no surprise that it took Lukas far longer to learn the secrets of how to win the Kentucky Derby—that most complex, baffling, and elusive of all American races. In 1981, when he took his first Derby horse to the post, a serviceable allowance horse named Partez, he felt the sting of trainer Johnny Campo's impromptu cries of sarcasm and ire. The trainer of Derby favorite Pleasant Colony, Campo complained to all who would listen: "Lukas is runnin' a milk cow in the Derby!" One of his most vivid Derby memories, says Lukas, is standing in the test barn after the race—after Partez finished third of 21 starters, a mere 3 1/4 lengths astern of Pleasant Colony—and Campo putting his arm around him and saying, "Son, that sumbitch is just an allowance horse. You did darn good!"

Lukas saddled 11 more Derby horses over the next six years, but they never came as close to the charmed circle as Partez. These days, Lukas looks at the many young trainers who bring horses to the Derby who are neither good enough nor fit enough to be there—just look at the field from May 5—and it is as though he is peering into a mirror, seeing himself as he was more than 20 years ago. For a man whose ambitions were nearly boundless, those were years of terrible frustration. He regrets throwing all those young horses to that pitiless old lion at Churchill Downs. 

"I had the passion," Lukas says. "The fire was burning deep. But looking back, in reality, I really didn't have the right horses. There's young trainers out there today, running in this 20-horse field, that are gonna some day look back—as I look back—and say, 'I had no business running that horse.' I was one of those. I was young. I was eager. I thought I was invincible. I thought I could overcome the odds and beat everybody. You know—full steam ahead!"

Never did this appear more evident than in his campaign to bring Capote to the Kentucky Derby in 1987. The son of Seattle Slew had been voted the 2-year-old champion male of 1986 after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita Park, but he had gotten "very sick" in December, Lukas says, and he never gave the colt a chance to recover. He was so frustrated for years at failing to win the race, so determined to taste the fruits of victory, that "My Old Kentucky Home" had become his Siren's Song. He simply refused to see the full wasting effects of Capote's illness. "It knocked him out and I was in denial about how much it knocked him out," Lukas says. "I was inexperienced. I didn't have the knowledge of a Charlie Whittingham or a Woody Stephens. I was in complete denial as to where I had that horse coming into the Derby. He had a coat to die for. He looked good. But he did not have the bottom to do it."

Capote vied for the lead to the far turn but suddenly gave way. He finished last after Angel Cordero eased him the final 70 yards. "It was my biggest mistake and my biggest disappointment," he says. 

All of which led, not incidentally, to his first and most resounding triumph as a Kentucky Derby trainer. Lukas was never shy about running his best fillies against the colts—his willingness to do that remains among his most enduring marks as a horse trainer—and he sensed, in Winning Colors, that he had the filly to beat the colts on the first Saturday in May. After all, she had pulverized the boys in the Santa Anita Derby (G1)—"She won it by seven and a half lengths!" Lukas says—and so he brought the frontrunning daughter of Caro to the Downs with the announced intention of tow-roping yet another field of colts, this time going 10 furlongs. Ever the basketball coach, he even arranged a stirring pep talk for jockey Gary Stevens, who had never won the Derby. He took Stevens to the Derby Museum at 9 o'clock Derby morning, convinced the museum staff to open it up for him, and together he and Gary watched the famous Derby slide show. 

"We stood in the middle of that room all alone," Lukas says. "I wanted to show him what it meant to be in the Derby and to win it and what it all meant in history. We stood there and when it was over, I put my arm around him and said, 'Now that is what we're in for. This is what it's all about.' It set the tone for things."

Lukas can close his eyes today and still see that roan filly striding all dappled into the Churchill paddock. "She looked unbelievable," Lukas recalls. "She was the biggest, strongest, most physical specimen in the ring that day."

To be sure, Winning Colors was a woman among boys, and Stevens rode her as if trying out for the slide show, sending her straight to the lead, opening up daylight down the backside, looking utterly confident as the poles wheeled by. She was getting very late the final furlong, but she hung on to win it by a diminishing neck over Forty Niner.

Lukas eventually won three more Derbys in the 1990s, the decade in which he dominated the Triple Crown races as no other trainer of the era, winning the roses with the much-traveled Thunder Gulch in 1995 ("He was a warrior, that little bastard"); Bill Young's Grindstone in 1996 ("I met Bill on the grass and we hugged and he said some very personal things to me and it got very emotional and we both lost it"); and Bob Lewis' Charismatic in 1999 ("It was a thrill to walk Bob and Beverly into the charmed circle that day"). 

He hasn't won it since Charismatic, and this was the second year in a row that he has been without a Derby charge, but he is still grinding at the snaffle, eager to get back into the swirl of things. "My family has a lot of longevity," he says. "My mother lived to 94. Her sister was 97! My energy is still good. My desire is still there. I'm as passionate about winning as ever. My heath is good. I never smoked or drank. I even started playing a little golf in the evenings."

Lukas has already had one extraordinary run in the sport, and he looks back upon it with feelings of accomplishment seasoned by a humility hard-earned. "Whenever the champions gather, whenever the historians reflect on what has happened in this sport, I know I am in that arena. You know you are one of them that did it. At the same time, I know how this sport can bring you to your knees. It can humble you."

And, as he knows, it can raise you up. He has this enormous reservoir of experience, this long history as a Derby trainer, and years to put it to good use. In fact, he sees himself doing this another 20 years. You heard that right: one score more. It is his mantra. Leaning over, pretending to hobble along on a cane, he now makes fun of himself, saying: "If nothing happens to me, I can see myself running a horse in the Derby when I'm 90!"

Beware, all young trainers: Don't count the old man out.