10/31/2013 9:11AM

Breeders' Cup: Lukas back in the spotlight

Barbara D. Livingston
D. Wayne Lukas will try to add to his record 19 Breeders' Cup wins when he saddles Strong Mandate for the Juvenile and Will Take Charge for the Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. – As far as the man himself is concerned, he never went away. But to the rest of the Thoroughbred world, 2013 has been the year D. Wayne Lukas stormed back onto racing’s main stage.

He won the Preakness, his first Triple Crown victory in 13 years, with Oxbow. He won the Travers with Will Take Charge. And the faded don of the Breeders’ Cup has returned this fall at Santa Anita with major players in the Classic and the Juvenile, and bit roles in the Sprint, the Turf, and the Juvenile Turf, his keenest Breeders’ Cup presence in more than a decade.

But really, the essence of the Lukas enterprise, now and always, went on full display at last year’s Breeders’ Cup. The race Lukas won – his first Breeders’ Cup success in seven seasons – was the now-defunct Juvenile Sprint, and the horse with whom he won it was named Hightail.

Hightail was a 15-1 shot, mainly because he came into the $454,000 stakes a maiden after eight starts. Lukas already had tried Hightail in four graded stakes, all at different distances and on turf, dirt, and Polytrack. Hightail had a fourth, two sixths, and a seventh to show for those ambitious placements, and most trainers would long since have regrouped and focused on more modest goals – a simple maiden race, for instance. Most trainers are not D. Wayne Lukas, who said in an interview this week in his temporary barn office at Santa Anita that he loved Hightail last November.

“I think if you train horses and you’re ultra-conservative, you probably miss some chances to win some really good races,” said Lukas, who turned 78 in September. “All that old-school stuff, giving them time, is fine, but at the end of the day, these people, these owners, they want to run. They want that trophy. They want to be in the winner’s circle.”

Lukas has taken horses to the Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle 19 times. No other trainer has won more than nine Breeders’ Cup races. But Lukas has swung and missed more than any other horseman, too: He has started 156 runners in Breeders’ Cup races, and 92 of them have finished worse than third.

Oh, and Hightail – he went from the Juvenile Sprint on Nov. 2 to the $1 million Delta Jackpot on Nov. 17. He finished fourth and has not raced since.

Through his 36 seasons as a trainer, that has been the biggest rap on Lukas: Success, but at what cost?

Lukas has delivered the goods for a long series of high-profile clients, proving over and over that he can find and develop a top horse. But there will be casualties along the way, horses chewed up and spit out by “our program,” as Lukas has regularly called his operation, for a time as great as the sport ever has seen.

Regret, self-doubt? Those niggling creatures do not gain admittance – at least for public consumption – into the house of Lukas’s mind. He remains brash as a young buck, utterly confident in his methods.

“First of all, I’ve never trained for the public’s approval; put it that way,” Lukas said. “I try to put my clientele in the arena they want to be in and give them a chance to experience this kind of event. That’s my job. I’ve never been one to read what’s written about me. I never read your publication, and I won’t read this story, either. I don’t have a 900 number for everyone to call me. I do what I think I need to do – I try to please my clientele, and over the years it’s worked out pretty good.”

It has. Lukas-trained horses have won 4,695 races and $266,000,568 in purses, much of that through the late 1980s and early ’ 90s purse structures where the top graded stakes, like Breeders’ Cup races, offered far less money than now. During the six-year span from 1985 to 1990, Lukas won a remarkable 262 graded stakes. He has won 14 Triple Crown races – the most of any trainer – and the Breeder’s Cup Distaff four times. Hightail’s upset gave Lukas 11 wins in Breeders’ Cup races for 2-year-olds.

The heart of the glory years ended in 1990. Lukas had several strong seasons thereafter, the last of them 2000, at which point his business fell into steady decline. Lukas attempted to keep a high-profile presence, but to little avail: From 2006 to 2012, his win record in graded stakes was 9 for 306.

Ask Lukas about the lean years, though, and he’ll scarcely acknowledge their existence. Lukas says it again and again: He never looks back. The past belongs to the past. And the present, amazingly, has returned Lukas to an earlier epoch. His 22 wins and 9 percent win rate during 2013 don’t leap off the page, but nine of those 22 victories came in graded stakes races.

“I’ve always been optimistic,” he said. “I never, ever considered that I was in a slump of any kind. Give me some quality to work with, we’ll always do okay. We didn’t have the horses. Every time we’ve ever been able to get into the sales, to get into the yearling market, we’ve done all right.”

Brad Kelley, the low-profile master of Calumet Farm, was the long-awaited new client that shot a spark into Lukas’s stable. Kelley owns Oxbow, who was recently retired to stud, and has sunk millions into auction horses in recent years, many of which Lukas, who has long prized his eye for unformed talent, selected himself.

Lukas’s best chances in the Breeders’ Cup, with Will Take Charge in the Classic and Strong Mandate in the Juvenile, aren’t owned by Kelley. Strong Mandate’s owners, Robert Baker and William Mack, have been with Lukas for years. Will Take Charge is owned by Arkansan Willis Horton, another longime Lukas client.

Strong Mandate got whacked at the draw, landing post 14 for his two-turn debut, but racing luck and a return to the form that won the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga by nearly 10 lengths would put him in the hunt. Lukas mainly blames Strong Mandate’s seventh-place clinker in the Oct. 5 Champagne Stakes on a poor ride, and has contracted a new pilot, Joel Rosario, for the Juvenile.

Will Take Charge has a classic set of Lukas running lines, mixing top-level success with dismal performances earlier this year. Will Take Charge, a towering chestnut 3-year-old, has taken defeats of 18, 12 1/2, 16, and 17 lengths in four of his five losses this season. But he also won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn – the showing that encouraged Lukas to push on through the disappointments – and has run three bang-up races in the second half of his year, finishing second in the Jim Dandy before winning the Travers and the Pennsylvania Derby.

Lukas’s decision to start racing Will Take Charge without blinkers at Saratoga has been credited for much of the colt’s newfound consistency, but Lukas scoffs at that explanation

“That horse was progressing,” Lukas said. “We’re giving the blinkers-off way too much credit. The blinkers were cut-back French cups, anyhow. Early on, we thought he was probably watching horses too much, so we put them on, and then we decided to take them off. The horse’s development, the way he was training, that was much more instrumental in turning him around. Maturity is the big thing with him. He’s 17 hands tall and he will probably be a better 4-year-old, if you want to know the truth.”

Will Take Charge is 12-1 to win the Classic on the Santa Anita morning line. That price, in the Lukas Breeders’ Cup pantheon, would place him close to Is It True, who beat the mighty Easy Goer at 9-1 in the 1988 Juvenile. Lukas has sprung much bigger upsets. Cash Run won the 1999 Juvenile Fillies at 32-1 (Lukas said he favored her going into the race over her hyped stablemate Surfside), and Spain shocked the world (excepting, of course, her trainer, who thought she had a great chance) in winning the 2000 Distaff at a whopping 55-1. And Cat Thief, off a seventh in the Travers and a third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park, won the 1999 Classic at 19-1.

“That was the one they criticized me most for running – Cat Thief in the Classic,” Lukas said. “A lot of people didn’t think he belonged at all. But I thought I had him turned around. A month prior to the Breeders’ Cup he started training so good. My owner was aggressive. It was one of the most satisfying wins I’ve ever had.”

A jockey’s agent sitting across from Lukas in the Santa Anita office was startled to learn Cat Thief had given Lukas his only victory in the Classic.

“That was your only one?” the agent asked.

“Yeah – up till Saturday!” Lukas exclaimed, and the way his year has gone, that might be more than the old Lukas optimism.