D. Wayne Lukas halted his buckskin pony near Barn 44, cast a withering eye on two hopeful reporters, and opened the conversation with a good-natured jab.
"Oh, here they are, waiting. Some things never change."
Also unchanged is the work ethic of the legend, who eschewed the 7:30 a.m. session reserved for Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) contenders April 28 at Churchill Downs and hustled Derby hopeful Bravazo to the track at 5:30 a.m.
Some of us get up and get at it in the morning, and others sleep in, as "Coach" is wont to say, with the implication being that Derby winners and other success stories are best launched before dawn. So the 82-year-old trainer sent Calumet Farm's 3-year-old son of Awesome Again to kick off the Derby training action Saturday, with Bravazo clocking five furlongs in company with maiden Berko in 1:01 2/5.
Bravazo most recently ran in the March 24 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), where he faded to eighth in a field of 10, after winning the Feb. 17 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford (G2). He shipped for both starts at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots from Lukas' winter base, Oaklawn Park.
"That six-week break is a long time," Lukas said. "All of us that were in that position, you get to the point where you say, 'Well, maybe we ought to start him once more.' You've got to do a little bit more with them in the mornings, and that's what we did.
"He galloped out pretty strong today. He finished strong, and that was the main thing. I think he's pretty fit. He puts a lot into his mornings."
Lukas is chasing his fifth Kentucky Derby trophy and returns to the classic off a two-year absence. In Bravazo, he sees a runner who is not only set to contest the first leg of the Triple Crown, but one who could handle the rigors of the entire series.
"He's a tough horse, really a tough horse," the trainer said. "He's got to improve, there's no question about it. But if he'll get a piece of it, he's one of those kind you could take through a Triple Crown series and dance every dance.
"Every time I think I should back up on him a little and maybe let him catch his air, he comes on out of there and drags us around on the mornings, and we end up tacking him up and doing something with him."
On Saturday, Lukas sent Bravazo out under exercise rider Danielle Rosier to start outside his workmate before the dark bay colt dove through on the rail.
"I (sent Bravazo) outside and then at the quarter pole let the workmate drift a little, and (Bravazo) shot through on the rail. But I do that routinely with every horse, try to teach them, give them different scenarios," Lukas said.
"I thought he worked well. Everybody's going to tell you that. He's had a really good two weeks, though. I think he's got an affinity for this racetrack, more so than he did (training at Oaklawn Park), honestly. He might have just settled in more here."
Lukas will give Luis Contreras a leg up on Bravazo in the Derby. The Mexico City native has ridden in the race once before, on Prospective . They finished 18th in 2012.
"I've had really good luck with him, and he's ridden horses very well for me," Lukas said. "He seems to communicate well with me, and the horses he rode (at Oaklawn Park), some of them ran way better numbers with him. I feel real comfortable with him. People will probably question (the decision) when there's some Hall of Fame-type guys wandering around here without a mount ... but my answer to that is, 30 years ago I took a complete unknown and put him on Winning Colors, and that kind of worked out.
Lukas was referring to his first Derby win, 30 years ago, with now-Hall of Famer Gary Stevens and the great filly Winning Colors. The trainer's most recent victory in a Triple Crown race came in 2013, when he teamed with Calumet to go all the way with another son of Awesome Again. Oxbow , who ran sixth in the Derby, won the Preakness Stakes (G1) and was second in the Belmont Stakes (G1). With that Preakness win, Lukas surpassed Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Triple Crown race victories with 14. His last Derby win came in 1999, with Charismatic.
"I look forward to it every year, whether I'm in it or not, because so many of my protégés are in it, so it's always been a fun time," he said. "But to be honest with you, I expect to be here with a horse every year. I've got a wealth of experience on how to get here and do it.
"I wake up every day expecting to be in it. My clients expect me to be in it. I was looking at all the 2-year-olds yesterday, and I was thinking, 'Damn, there's no reason for us not to be in it next year' ... we're not short on talent."