Updated on 06/08/2013 10:23AM

Belmont Stakes: Lukas enjoying his success at 77

Barbara D. Livingston
D. Wayne Lukas will saddle Oxbow and Will Take Charge in Saturday’s Belmont.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Back when he was riding high, ruling the racing landscape with a far-flung operation that regularly knocked off major races, took down Eclipse Awards, and courted controversy by taking shots in races where his horses looked overmatched, there was an undercurrent of defensiveness to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, at times seething bitterness that seeped out from the façade of crisp suits, immaculate shed rows, and a million-dollar smile.

There was one morning at Churchill Downs, the week of the Kentucky Derby nearly 25 years ago, when Lukas was playing host to basketball coach Bobby Knight, a lightning rod in his own right at the time. Lukas had a barn full of the best runners in the land, a stakes winner poking its head out of seemingly every stall. Lukas, before a large gathering of media, swept his hand down the shed row in a grand gesture.

“These,” he said to Knight, while playing to the crowd, “are the horses.” Lukas then waved his hand back toward the assemblage of reporters. “And these are the horses’s asses.”

One had to wonder back then if − when business started to turn, as it will in racing − Lukas would grow embittered, turn into the mean old man down the street who yells at kids to get off his lawn.

He hasn’t turned out that way. Now 77, Lukas is far from the days when he had multiple stables at the biggest outposts, but he has aged well, not just physically – you’d never guess he’s that old – but emotionally. He’s become more like a favorite uncle who comes over on the holidays and leaves everybody smiling.

At the Preakness Stakes a little more than two weeks ago, Lukas had everyone rolling at the traditional Alibi Breakfast, where trainers are asked questions about their horses for the assembled media. Lukas took the microphone from the master of ceremonies and proceeded to tell a ribald joke with pitch-perfect timing, hitting the punchline like a seasoned comic. He looks, and acts, happy.

“I’m content,” Lukas said at Belmont Park on Tuesday morning as he grazed Oxbow, who is set to run Saturday in the 145th Belmont Stakes. “When I was younger, I’d look around and want to beat the other guy, day-in and day-out. When you get where I am now, you’re content. If you don’t win, you just get an ice cream sundae.”

Make no mistakes, though − the one thing that hasn’t changed is Lukas’s desire to be in, and win, major races. Three weeks ago, he reached yet another pinnacle in his Hall of Fame career when Oxbow won the Preakness, giving Lukas his record 14th victory in a Triple Crown race, breaking a tie with the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons.

He’ll try to add to that total in the Belmont, in which Lukas is set to send out Oxbow and Will Take Charge, both of whom will have competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The race also is scheduled to include five horses trained by Todd Pletcher, and one each for Dallas Stewart and Kiaran McLaughlin, all of whom worked for Lukas before going out on their own. All told, nine of the Belmont runners have connections to Lukas.

[BELMONT STAKES: Probable field and latest updates]

“Dallas, Kiaran, Todd – they’re all graduates of Lukas University,” Lukas said. “They’re outstanding individuals. They were wonderful people to start with, but I think they learned a lot from us from an organizational standpoint, the discipline.”

Pletcher said there’s “a certain camaraderie between the group of us that worked with Wayne.”

“We became lifelong friends because of that experience,” he said.

Pletcher even was organizing a dinner at his home for Lukas University graduates for Wednesday night.

“They like to tell stories of things they did then that I didn’t know about,” Lukas said.

Little misses his eye. Lukas is still one of the first through the stable gates every morning, and he still rides out each set on his pony, the lone concession to age being that he uses a stepstool to help ease his way into the saddle. Lukas says when people ask him when he’s going to retire, he says he is retired, just instead of playing golf, he rides horses.

“I get to ride out each morning on a day like this,” Lukas said on a gorgeous, crisp morning at Belmont Park, “and watch the horses go around. On race days, I get to have a great lunch in the turf club, then go out for a great dinner. How can you beat it?”

He jokes that he’ll continue working until the day he topples off his horse, “they harrow me into the racing surface, and that will be that.” Though blessed with good health, Lukas is well aware of the advancing years “when I see guys my age not doing that well.”

“That’s kind of a wake-up call,” he said.

It has been more than three decades now since Lukas first burst on the Thoroughbred scene in Southern California after great success with Quarter Horses. He was well aware of the resentment there was among trainers to his meteoric rise.

“There was a lot of jealousy, but three guys were great – Laz Barrera, Charlie Whittingham, and Bob Wheeler,” Lukas recalled. “Those three guys were at the end of their careers, and they were totally comfortable. There was no insecurity. I can now see where that was coming from. I appreciate that now.”

Lukas long has been able to cultivate well-heeled clients, from Gene Klein to Bob Lewis to W.T. Young – for whom he won Kentucky Derbies – and he’s now got Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm, the owner of Oxbow, in his corner. Though Kelley keeps a lower profile than a deep-cover CIA agent, Lukas says they speak at length each day and that Kelley is integrally involved in the planning of the stable’s fortunes.

“The future looks really well,” Lukas said.

Lukas also has a new girlfriend, Laurie Krause, a world-renowned horse-show judge from Colorado whom Lukas met through friends.

“She’s really starting to enjoy the racing business,” Lukas said. “She’s enjoying the competition. There were 140,000 people on their feet at the Derby. It’s not like that at a horse show.

“That’s what I like about racing,” he said. “There’s no judge. You don’t have to care what anyone says. It gets decided on the racetrack.”

Lukas's Triple Crown race winners

Year Race Winner
2013 Preakness Oxbow 
2000 Belmont Commendable
1999 Kentucky Derby Charismatic
1999 Preakness Charismatic
1996 Kentucky Derby Grindstone
1996 Belmont Editor’s Note
1995 Kentucky Derby Thunder Gulch
1995 Preakness Timber Country
1995 Belmont Thunder Gulch
1994 Preakness Tabasco Cat
1994 Belmont Tabasco Cat
1988 Kentucky Derby Winning Colors
1985 Preakness Tank’s Prospect
1980 Preakness Codex

Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
In a different article, DWL said he was going to send out a better horse that went into the Preakness. Many of you think he is talking about Oxbow. Oh no, he reffered in that comment about Will take Charge but nobody picked it up. Another old man jock this Saturday wins the Belmont showing that his stuff on horseback is still good enough to show the young guns , Well , that age is just a number .....
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
I first started getting my feet wet choosing horse in Triple Crown races in 1994. It was a huge decade for me. Between Gary Stevens', D. Wayne Lukas' & Bob Baffert's Triple Crown entries, I experienced & enjoyed a pretty magical decade. I didn't realize at the time that D. Wayne Lukas was a pretty fabulous trainer, I just picked horses I liked, many of whom were being trained by Mr. Lukas. Now that I'm a little older and wiser, I totally appreciate the talent of Mr. Lukas, not to mention being grateful to have seen & supported so many fabulous horses that were in his care. All names that figure prominently in my memory and great experiences in my life - Thunder Gulch, Winning Colors, Charismatic, Grindstone, etc.. Thank you, Mr. Lukas. It's great to see you center stage once again in the Triple Crown races with your scrappy colt, Oxbow. Plus, I like seeing a sharp-dressed trainer. You have style, whether in a well-made suit in the Winner's Circle, or on a horse wearing great cowboy leathers surveying your charges. It's also nice to see you're smiling & enjoying the ride much more this time around. Congratulations, long-time fans are happy to see your TC rebirth.
Mark More than 1 year ago
I have to respect still getting it done . go dwl.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
No doubt about it, Wayne Lukas is good for racing. His record speaks for itself, and the succcesful trainers who have worked for Lukas, echo the same story. Great trainer, and indivdual. Keep em coming, Mr.Lukas.
philcoforde More than 1 year ago
I asked him one time what was the secret to his debonair appearance all these years..and he laughed and said..."I don't drink, I don't smoke....(pause).....i chase a little," and those around laughed...then another reporter chimed in "You got to have one vice."
philcoforde More than 1 year ago
Nice LEAD Privman !!!!!
Kim Curtsinger More than 1 year ago
When I first started following racing & going to Keeneland, Wayne's horses were head & shoulders above everyone else in the paddock. Such pride in the way they looked spoke volumns about how he went about his business. Good Luck Saturday and may he indeed topple off the horse some day and go out doing what he loved most.
John More than 1 year ago
I remember when I first started going to the races, one of the first horse I saw run was Landeluce ! She was just a total freak. I think she won the Hollywood Starlet by 20 open lengths and from there, it was the sky was the limit with her. EVERYONE was excited by her and her future. Sadly, she got ill and died suddenly, and like many others I sent D Wayne a condolence card, it was just so sad . Amazingly, he responded with a signed photo of Landeluce and a short note ! Class guy, 110%
Phil West More than 1 year ago
Mr. Lukas, may your health continue to be good, your passion for the next race coniue your love of this wonderful sport. I remember when we always looked at any horse you shipped as "D. Wayne off the plane". Remarkable angle for a bettor, more importantly, you established racing at a elite national level. The industry owes you a huge debt of gratitude.
Mark Toothaker More than 1 year ago
I was fortunate enough to be there in 1987 when Bobby Knight was there at the barn and watched first hand how Wayne worked the media. I was a groom at that time lucky enough to work around Randy Bradshaw, Dallas Stewart, and Wayne's son Jeff. We ran 10th, 12th, and last that year with On The Line, War, and Capote but the very next year was Winning Colors. Wayne is the best and always has been, some say he is just a promoter and they are right there is no one better but hard work and orgainized are true as well. Try to beat him to the barn of a morning, very few have.
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Very interesting perspective Mark. Thanks.