Cowboy hat firmly in place, D. Wayne Lukas hustled from the winner’s circle to meet with the media. Along the way, he steadied himself with a cane, one of the Hall of Fame trainer’s few concessions to age.
At 86, Lukas had just earned his record-tying fifth victory in the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks and first since 1990. His filly, Secret Oath, scored a two-length victory on Friday at Churchill Downs.
The old guard outdid the younger guys.
“When you’re 86, going to be 87 in a few months, you know that there are not a lot of them in front of you yet,” Lukas said. “I enjoy the competition in the big arena.”
Rob Mitchell, who owns Secret Oath with wife Stacy, reminded everyone: “He hasn’t forgotten how to train a horse.”
Lukas started in the business training quarter horses and had a successful 10-year run before switching to thoroughbreds.
Along the way, he staffed his barn like the high school basketball coach he once was in his native Wisconsin. He recruited and hired young men, shared his playbook on how to train high-strung thoroughbreds, and then sent his assistants on the road while he oversaw things in California.
“A lot of nice records fell and a lot of good things happened,” Lukas said.
They didn’t just learn how to read horses. Lukas emphasized discipline, good grooming, sharp dressing and keeping the stable spotless. His Churchill Downs barn remains that way today, with a large spray of red roses standing outside during Derby week.
He set the standard in the 1980s and ’90s as one of the first trainers to have multiple divisions of horses running — and winning — consistently from California to New York. He was the first trainer to earn over $100 million in purse money, he owns a leading 14 Triple Crown race victories, and his 20 Breeders’ Cup wins are tops, too. At his peak, he had over 160 horses in training.
Lukas has had his share of detractors over the years, and he’s been criticized for his unconventional ways.
Lukas’ one-time rival, Bob Baffert, watched the Oaks on television. He’s been banned for two years by Churchill Downs after his 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test.
“It was very emotional to see him win,” Baffert wrote in a text to The Associated Press. “Wayne has always set the bar in racing. I’ve looked up to him my whole career. When it looked like he was going to win the race, I was overwhelmed with joy for him. In my eyes, he’s the greatest trainer of all time.”
Secret Oath is a daughter of Arrogate, whom Baffert trained to victories in three of the world’s richest races: the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup and the Pegasus World Cup. Arrogate won the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old of the year in 2016.
Todd Pletcher, who finished second in the Oaks, waited in the tunnel to hug his old boss. He became a Hall of Fame trainer himself.
“I’m really happy for Wayne,” Pletcher said. “If I couldn’t win this race I was rooting for him.”
So was Brad Cox, who finished seventh.
“Will I be winning the Oaks at 86? I sure as hell hope so,” he said.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who finished fourth, said, “Lukas winning the Oaks was far better than anything I could ever do. It is a beautiful moment for Wayne, unbelievably deserving with a great mare.”
Lukas watched the race from a box seat alongside another of his former mentees, trainer Dallas Stewart, who put a hard squeeze on Lukas’ arm as Secret Oath closed in on the finish line.
“We got some great, great friendships going because of these horses,” Lukas said.
Lukas was joined by his wife, Laurie, and grandchildren Brady and Kelly. Their father, Jeff, was Lukas’ only child from his first marriage. He died in 2016, 29 years after being run over by his father’s horse that got loose in the stable area at Santa Anita in California. Jeff suffered permanent injuries that ended his career working side-by-side with his dad.
Earlier Friday, Lukas scratched his Kentucky Derby horse. Ethereal Road was a 30-1 longshot and drew the far outside post in the 20-horse field.
“You have to read the horse,” he said. “Ethereal Road wasn’t as sharp and wasn’t as focused as he was earlier in the week.”
Lukas’ stable hasn’t been the force it once was for several years now. He recovered from a case of COVID-19 in 2020 and still gets on a pony to accompany his horses to the track for pre-dawn workouts. He has mellowed since his hard-charging days and even writes poetry.
“I look at him like a legend,” winning jockey Luis Saez said. “Like a guy that he really loved the sport and he give all his life to the sport. That’s what we should do. Everybody should do because we love the horses and we love the sport.”