BALTIMORE | D. Wayne Lukas relaxed on a bench in the quiet, far corner of the stable area at Pimlico Race Course and reflected on 30-plus years of Triple Crown experience.
“I remember sitting right there on that bench 32 years ago,” he said, gazing down the row. “I had one horse sitting in that first stall and we won it with Codex right here. And I remember saying to my son, I said, ‘What’s the big deal about this? Hell, we’ll win a bunch of these.’ I didn’t realize it was going to take eight more years to get the next one.”
Lukas was right; he has won four Preakness Stakes races since then. And now at 76 he’s an elder statesman of sorts on the backstretch here.
“Some of these horses fit the pattern of what it takes to win a Preakness, a Derby or so forth. And some of them are really totally out of their league or put in a situation where they have no chance. Now after 30-some years you get a little bit better feel for that,” he said. “That experience factor, there is no how-to book. You can’t pull it up in the library or on a chip in a computer that says this is how you do it. It’s all experience. So when you get me or [Bob] Baffert or some of these guys that have been here a little bit, that’s a tremendous edge.”
Talking about the pressure that I’ll Have Another’s Doug O’Neill is going through as a first-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer coming to the Preakness, Lukas knows exactly what that’s like.
“The spotlight is what you make it. You can pick and choose with you guys. That never bothered me. I always thought that was part of the territory. You only worry when you’re 30-1 in this thing and nobody is asking for your opinion. Then you’ve got a problem.”
Wisdom from a Hall of Fame trainer is always welcome, even when Lukas’ horse Optimizer is a 30-1 long shot in Saturday’s race. He admits he’s “realistic” about Optimizer’s chances in the Preakness, but his laid-back attitude this week is no facade.
“Doesn’t worry me. I’ve already won five of them. I don’t have to wake up every morning and wonder if I can train one of these,” Lukas said. “I’m really comfortable where I’m at. After being in 30 of these I don’t feel any pressure at all. I’ve been there. I’ve had the highs and the lows in this particular race. I’m very comfortable with what I’ve got, in what I’m doing.”
But Lukas isn’t riding off into any sunset, talking in hopeful tones about the future of Lukas racing thanks to an association with Brad Kelly, who recently bought Calumet Farm.
“If it isn’t this year, I would be very surprised if we don’t have quite a few more in that shed row next year. He’s being very aggressive,” Lukas said. “We’ve been in the sales ring very aggressive, which we haven’t for the last 10 years been able to do with the death of Bill Young and Bob Lewis and these people that I had before. Now we got a major player again.
“Anytime we’ve been able to get in the sale ring, anytime we’ve been able to get in the draft, so to speak, and draft in the first round or two, we’re tough. That, I think, is on its way.”