Today’s Oaklawn Park media notes penned by Robert Yates, with Kentucky horsemen again prominent (Coady Photography photo above of D. Wayne Lukas at Oaklawn):
If it’s hard to keep a good man down, what about a great trainer?
The legendary D. Wayne Lukas, 85, has returned to Oaklawn, his winter base for more than a decade, after recently losing another one of his longtime prominent clients in an era of super trainers, declining foal crops and COVID-19.
But “The Coach” is still coaching, among other things, overseeing a downsized stable – 27 horses – mentoring two 20-something female exercise riders and continuing to take his runners to the track each morning on a pony.
“We’re down in numbers, like most barns, other than two or three,” said Lukas, a former high school basketball coach who was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1987 and 2011. “Some of them are up, but we’re not. I think what we’ve got will give us a competitive meet, but I don’t have any grandiose ideas that we’re going to have a dominant meet.”
A four-time Eclipse Award winner as the country’s outstanding trainer (1985, 1986, 1987 and 1994), Lukas has several well-bred young prospects, notably Nov. 27 Churchill Downs maiden special weights graduate Lock Up, unraced My Favorite Uncle and Ram.
Lock Up, a 3-year-old by Maclean’s Music, is a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Sinister Minister. My Favorite Uncle is a 3-year-old son of champions Uncle Mo and Storm Song. Ram, a 3-year-old ridgling by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, is a half-brother to millionaire Coal Front, winner of Oaklawn’s $500,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses in 2019 for trainer Todd Pletcher. Lock Up is nominated to the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 22, Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races.
“Lock Up just broke his maiden, but he did it pretty impressively,” Lukas said. “You look at that video, it was very impressive and the time was excellent. I’m sure his sheet numbers are going to be pretty good.”
Ram is winless in four starts, but did run second in a Sept. 3 Churchill Downs maiden special weight route. The winner, King Fury, returned to win the $98,000 Street Sense Overnight Stakes Oct. 25 at Churchill Downs before running seventh in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 6 at Keeneland.
“I’m looking for Ram to especially improve this spring and maybe get in the fray a little bit if everything goes good,” Lukas said. “He’s got some ability.”
Ram was purchased for $375,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by the now-deceased Robert C. Baker and William L. Mack, who had previously campaigned Grade 1 winners Strong Mandate, Sporting Chance and Dublin with Lukas, as well Super Saks, winner of the $150,000 Carousel Stakes for older female sprinters in 2016 at Oaklawn.
Lukas said Baker’s recent death represents the loss of another “key client,” following Eugene Klein (died in 1990), W.T. Young (2004), Bob Lewis (2006) and Bob French (2013). Some of Lukas’ best horses for Klein, Young, Lewis and French included champions and/or Classic winners Lady’s Secret, Tank’s Prospect, Flanders, Grindstone, Charismatic, Timber Country, Serena’s Song, Capote and Landaluce.
“I’m from the old school,” Lukas said. “The five major clients that I’ve had have all died. That hurts. You don’t replace Bob Lewis, somebody like that, at least in this age. That’s five guys that were 100 percent behind me in the sale ring and everything. But we’re here, 85 years old, on a pony every day. What the hell?”
Lukas owns or co-owns a handful of his horses, including the maiden Atoka, a 4-year-old Union Rags colt with a string of bullet workouts at Oaklawn. Lukas’ right-hand man remains longtime assistant Sebastian “Bas” Nicholl, while exercise riders Kaylee Crotchett and Jade Cunningham are learning the ropes under the Hall of Fame trainer. Crotchett, 22, said she will make her riding debut aboard Mr. Peterkin, a Lukas-trained 3-year-old maiden, early in the 2021 Oaklawn meeting.
“I’m trying to make Jade a top exercise rider,” Lukas said. “She’s tall. She’s really come along great. Kaylee, I’m going to ride.”
Lukas, of course, already has an immaculate track record as a teacher. Several of his former assistants, including Pletcher, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart and three-time Oaklawn champion Bobby Barnett (1994, 1995 and 1996), became stars after going out on their own.
“I’m still coaching,” Lukas said. “A couple of guys that have left me recently, they are calling me on the phone, trying to get advice on this and that. I think once a coach, always a coach. I don’t think you ever get away from that. I find myself even saying things where I don’t belong out there with some young guy. I’ll say, ‘What don’t you try this with that horse?’ I find myself doing that.”
Lukas has been sidelined in recent years with heart and back problems and took a brief sabbatical in August because of COVID-19. But it’s hard to keep this great trainer down.
“I’m 100 percent,” Lukas said. “In fact, I feel really good. My energy is better here than any place where I go. I think it’s the air. I think it’s the oxygen. What do they say? The trees filter the air. But I have more energy and go on less sleep here than any place I go. I’ve got a beautiful home in the woods in Kentucky, but I feel better here than any place. You see why people come here and retire.”
Lukas has a home adjacent to the northeast corner of Oaklawn property. He has 324 victories, including 47 stakes, in his Oaklawn career.
Overall, Lukas has amassed 4,842 victories and $282,785,442 in purse earnings in his career, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Lukas was a 1999 inductee into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
The Smarty Jones
The Oaklawn racing department listed seven probables Thursday morning for the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 22, which will anchor the opening-day card.
Post positions for the 1-mile Smarty Jones will be drawn Friday. It is Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races, offering 17 to the top four finishers (10-4-2-1, respectively) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby. Expected to be entered are Caddo River for trainer Brad Cox, Cowan (Steve Asmussen), Hardly Swayed (Rey Hernandez), Lawlessness (Ingrid Mason), Martini Blu (Mac Robertson), Rock Your World (John Sadler) and Senor Buscador (Todd Fincher).
Caddo River exits a powerful front-running maiden special weights victory Nov. 15 at Churchill Downs. Cowan finished a fast-closing second in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) Nov. 6 at Keeneland and completed his 2-year-old campaign with a runner-up finish in the $200,000 Springboard Mile Dec. 18 at Remington Park.
Rock Your World, in his only start, won a turf sprint New Year’s Day at Santa Anita. Senor Buscador is unbeaten in two career starts, including an eye-catching 5 ¾-length score in the Springboard Mile after lagging far behind early. Luis Quinonez, Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2007, has been aboard for both career victories.
Asmussen won last year’s Smarty Jones with Gold Street.
Post positions for Oaklawn’s first schedule day of racing, Jan. 22, will be drawn Friday. The $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races, will highlight the card. … The Smarty Jones is the first of 33 scheduled stakes races. The scheduled 57-day meeting ends May 1. … Riders arriving recently for the 2021 meet include Joe Talamo, who tied for second in his debut as an Oaklawn regular last year with 53 victories, and newcomer Francisco Arrieta. … Nominations to Oaklawn’s $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters closed Thursday. Both races are Jan. 30.