- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

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BALTIMORE. — D. Wayne Lukas is back in town, a shot in the arm for a sport that needs it, a poke in the ribs for those who deserve it, at least according to his view of the world.

At 71, the legendary and outspoken Hall of Fame trainer will saddle the speedy Flying First Class in tomorrow’s 132nd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, a place he loves. As he told reporters this week, at the Kentucky Derby they tolerate you, at New York’s Belmont they don’t give a [expletive] but here in Baltimore “they embrace you.”

Lukas wouldn’t mind a little love in return from the old track in his record-extending 32nd Preakness start. He has not won here since 1999 nor any Triple Crown race since the 2000 Belmont. He has won a record-tying 13 Triple Crown races (but never a Triple Crown) and was the first trainer to reach $200 million in earnings. Lately, though, he has not produced as many winners as he used to, a reality he is the first to acknowledge.

“But we’re building back up,” he said. “As young as I am, I can’t see any reason why we won’t win a few more.”

Even here, with a horse installed as a 20-1 long shot in the opening line? Lukas flatly declares Derby winner Street Sense the best of the nine-horse field, but he also says he never has had a horse as fast as Flying First Class, and he loves the three weeks off since his last race, a decisive win in the Derby Trial.

“We’ll be in the mix,” he said. “He’s one of the few horses that can control his destiny a little bit. I’m hoping to get him mentally right. Physically, I know I’ve got him right. He’s better than I’ve ever had him. … But I love to be in the Preakness with a horse that has a chance to maybe say something about how the race unfolds. Some of them can’t. Some of them are at the mercy of what everybody else does. We’ll take it to them right from the opening bell.”

That’s a term usually reserved for boxing, but the former high school and college basketball coach loves to reference other sports. Chatting with reporters after the Preakness draw in downtown Baltimore on Wednesday, he reiterated his desire for a racing commissioner in the mold of the NBA’s David Stern and former NFL boss Pete Rozelle because “it would help our sport immensely,”

Of Flying First Class, he said, “We’re not gonna change our horse’s style. I’ve never won any races doing that. You don’t do that in the NFL, you don’t do that in the NCAAs or any other place.”

Asked about his showmanship and how he has tried to promote thoroughbred racing during the last three decades, he noted his six straight Triple Crown victories (with different horses) and 17 Breeders’ Cup wins before adding, “You certainly inherit the mantle of being a spokesperson, whether you like it or not. Now some people’s personalities aren’t that way, in all sports.

“I guess we could name [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick. He actually doesn’t want to sell football. But he does sell it because he’s a winner. But I always thought we owed it to the public to try to sell the sport.”

Lukas mounted the platform long ago and never has stepped off, offering opinions on anything he believes will help thoroughbred racing. His desire for a commissioner is just one thing. He insists Maryland needs to introduce slot machines to its race tracks, which many believe is vital to the Preakness remaining at Pimlico.

“When the legislature decides the purse strings are gonna hurt, then they’ll step up,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is get in debt far enough and they’ll get into gambling and turn to racing and help us out. They’re not there yet. But when they hit rock bottom and they’ve got to please all those guys and the taxpayers they’ll come around.”

Lukas’ bluntness, flamboyance and love of the limelight have made him an occasional burr under the saddle of the racing establishment. Racing observers credit Lukas with helping revolutionize the business side of training by setting up a national network of stables and flying horses all over the country to compete. Such practices just weren’t done before. Some didn’t like it.

“He was always my hero,” said trainer Larry Jones, who will saddle Derby runner-up Hard Spun, another speed horse, in the Preakness. “He was a great, great ambassador. He changed the way a lot of things have been done in this game. … He was the first trainer that went coast to coast. He had major divisions in New York. He had major divisions in California. He had super-large stables that trainers used to not do.

“He’s a great spokesperson for the industry. He’s so likeable. You know, everybody likes Wayne. I think the media sometimes would get to him and he’d get a little short-tempered, but I can understand that happening. But he’s a great ambassador for the sport. Always has been. I’m proud to consider myself a friend of his now.”

Amid all his achievements, Lukas seems most proud of the dozen trainers who have ventured out on their own after working with him.

“It looks like my legacy’s gonna be as a teacher, a coach,” he said. “I’ve got all these young guys doing so well.”

One of them, Todd Pletcher, is the reigning three-time Eclipse Award winner as the top trainer in the country. Pletcher, who will saddle King of the Roxy and Circular Quay in the Preakness, has eclipsed Lukas in terms of recent accomplishments but has yet to win a Triple Crown race. Before the Kentucky Derby, in which Pletcher had five horses running, he spoke warmly and gratefully about his mentor.

“To be able to work in that environment, with that quality of horses and be able to pick his brain on a daily basis, it was priceless,” Pletcher told reporters. “Anytime that you learn from someone, a Hall of Famer like Wayne … you’d be foolish to deviate from that system a great deal.”

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