05/18/2013 8:48PM

Andrew Beyer: At 77, Lukas rolls the dice and wins

Tom Keyser
Trainer Wayne Lukas leads Oxbow and Gary Stevens to the winner's circle after the Preakness.

BALTIMORE — “I don’t wake up in the morning and say that I have to prove I can train a horse,” Wayne Lukas said at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday night.

But if the 77-year-old Hall of Famer still has full confidences in his abilities, most people would say that Lukas’s time has passed. More than 15 years have elapsed since he dominated American racing as no one ever had before. He revolutionized Thoroughbred training by being the first person to run a truly national operation and he smashed every significant record in his profession.

Lukas’s fortunes ebbed as younger men like Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert took his place atop the training hierarchy. Lukas didn’t have as many deep-pocketed owners or talented horses as he did in his heyday. And, to many observers, it appeared that he had lost some of the skills that had made him great.

But there were some things Lukas never lost: his confidence, his aggressiveness, his optimism, his willingness to roll the dice and try to win the big races. When he entered three horses against the favorite Orb in the Preakness yesterday, few people took them too seriously. But when Oxbow led all the way to score a 16-to-1 upset, the result confirmed one tenet of Lukas’s philosophy: You can’t win if you don’t run.

The result helped Lukas make even more history. He won his sixth Preakness — just one victory behind the record set by R.W. Walden in the 19th century. And he captured his 14th Triple Crown race, breaking the mark he shared with the legendary "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons.

This victory ended a long drought for Lukas. His last moment of glory in America’s biggest races came in 1999, when he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with an ex-claiming horse named Charismatic. Few trainers would have had the boldness to take a shot at the classics with such a horse.

Oxbow had looked like a promising colt when he won a maiden race in Kentucky and a minor stakes race in Louisiana. Lukas thought enough of him that he telephoned jockey Gary Stevens and told him: “I’m going to have a colt for you: Oxbow.” Lukas knew that Stevens was launching a comeback at the age of 50, after a seven-year retirement, and the two of them had a long history together. Stevens won his first Kentucky Derby for Lukas in 1988.

Stevens rode Oxbow to a sixth-place finish at Churchill Downs, losing by nearly 10 lengths, but handicappers who looked closely at the Derby knew the performance was better than the finish indicated. The pace in the Derby was extraordinarily fast, and it took a toll on all of the horses near the lead, including Oxbow, who almost put his nose in front on the final turn before he tired. The dynamics of the race gave a significant advantage to stretch-runners, most notably Orb, who came from 18 lengths behind, swooped around the field and won so decisively that he was hailed as a potential Triple Crown winner.

Lukas knew that Oxbow deserved another chance. He didn’t give specific tactical instructions to Stevens, but he has always believed in the efficacy of early speed and never has qualms about seeing his horses go to the front. Stevens knows this, too. An hour before the Preakness, Stevens rode a 24-to-1 shot named Skyring for Lukas and led all the way to win the $300,000 Dixie Handicap. So when Oxbow broke alertly, and quickly found himself in front of other speed horses such as Goldencents and Titletown Five, Stevens let him run. And the race developed in a manner that was totally different from the Derby. Oxbow was able to set such an easy pace, covering the first six furlongs in 1 minute 13.26 seconds, that the jockey said to himself: “Are you kidding me? Is this happening?” It was indeed.

To the people who believed that Orb was a potential superstar, the Preakness was surely a shock, because the 3-to-5 favorite could only muster an abortive move on the turn and finished a lackluster fourth. Lukas wasn’t shocked. He knew that all of the horses in the Derby had gone through a stressful race, in a 19-horse field over a muddy track, and that some were going to feel the effects. He knew that there are no certain outcomes in the Preakness or in any horse race. “You can’t mail it in,” Lukas said. “It’s a different surface, a different time. You’ve got to line them up and run them.”

In his heyday, Lukas was often criticized for running his horses too much, for thrusting them recklessly into the Triple Crown series; the trainer’s ambitions took a physical toll on many of his animals. Today’s trainers are different — cautious to the point that they sometimes seem afraid to run their horses. The trainers of the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in the Derby — including Normandy Invasion, who had a tougher Derby trip than Oxbow — all declined to run in the Preakness.

They probably made a mistake. The race was run in a terribly slow 1:57.54 for 13 / 16 miles, one of the weakest runnings of the race ever. It was a prize for the taking — and Lukas was here to take it.

© 2013, The Washington Post