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Kentucky Derby: Lukas an expert in training for multiple owners
By Nicole Russo
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas will saddle Will Take Charge and Oxbow in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, seeking his fifth victory in the classic, which would give him sole possession of second place on the all-time list.
However, Lukas says that putting either owner Willis Horton or Brad Kelley in the winner's circle would mean more to him than another win for himself.
"[Winning it again] would mean a lot [to me], but not as much as you think," Lukas said. "I'm more interested in putting Brad Kelley on that sign, or Willis Horton. After the first one, I always got the feeling that boy, I want to give this [owner]—the Bill Youngs, the Bob Lewises of my life—the ultimate thrill in racing.
"The most emotional I ever got after the Derby was meeting Bill Young on the grass course after the race [after winning in 1996 with Grindstone]."
Both Will Take Charge and Oxbow were six-figure auction purchases by their respective owners, who have a history with the Lukas operation. Horton, a longtime client, now has horses with former Lukas assistant Dallas Stewart.
"Mr. Horton and I go way back. He was with me originally," Lukas said of the owner, an Arkansas native. "All my assistants that left me took an owner with them. [Mike Maker] took [Ken and Sarah Ramsey], [Todd Pletcher] took [Michael Tabor], Dallas took Mr. Horton—that was with my blessing, by the way. We've always kept a good relationship.”
Will Take Charge, an Unbridled's Song colt who is a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Take Charge Indy, was a $425,000 purchase by Horton at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale, tying him with Falling Sky as the most expensive horse in the Derby field.
Brad Kelley, who now races under the famed Calumet Farm banner after assuming control of the historic Lexington, Ky., property last year, has found success with Lukas in recent years. The team arrived at Churchill Downs last year with Optimizer, the only member of his crop to compete in all three Triple Crown races. The colt is now a graded stakes winner. Lukas also saddled Kelley's Hightail to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint last fall.
Bred by Colts Neck Stables, Oxbow was a $250,000 purchase out of the Keeneland September sale by Kelley. Lukas said that one of the Awesome Again colt's primary strengths is his toughness.
"He's tough," Lukas said. "He'll work on crushed glass, broken Coke bottles, [Churchill backstretch road] Longfield Avenue, it doesn't matter."
Kelley's horses began racing under the Calumet name earlier this year, which would add another level of significance to a victory for Lukas. He previously trained for the operation when it was owned by its founders, the Wright family, and conditioned Calumet's 1990 Horse of the Year Criminal Type shortly before the fabled farm spiraled into bankruptcy.
Lukas is no stranger to running horses for multiple clients in a Kentucky Derby. In 1996, the year he won the race for W.T. Young's Overbrook Farm with Grindstone, he saddled a record five horses for three owners. The feat was matched by Nick Zito in 2005 and former Lukas assistant Pletcher in 2007.
Lukas said that saddling that many horses in the race can be an unpredictable affair.
"I had five in that year with Grindstone, and I thought maybe he was my lesser chance of the five," Lukas said, "And he jumped up and got it done."
One year earlier, Lukas saddled three horses in the Derby, and had thought juvenile champion Timber Country, owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, Overbrook Farm, and Gainesway, was his strongest candidate.
"The year that Thunder Gulch won, I thought Timber Country was my best shot," Lukas said. "He was the 2-year-old champion and had that great pedigree and long stride."
His opinion began to change the morning jockey Donna Barton put all three runners through their final workouts the week of the race.
"We worked them all on a Monday, right in a row, boom, boom, boom," Lukas said. "The last one she got on was Thunder Gulch, so coming back on the saddle horse, I said, 'Donna, you worked all three of them, you have the best seat in the house. What do you think?' And she said, 'This one right here.'"
Pletcher will again saddle five horses, for five different owners, this year, and is well aware of the challenges that juggling multiple clients poses.
"The best-case scenario is, you're going to have four unhappy owners," Pletcher said. "It's a blessing and a curse all at the same time."
Lukas is no stranger to that position.
"Only one guy is going to be happy," Lukas said. "I think if you win it, ignore the [winning owner] and go right to the ones that lost and console those guys. The winner will be fine. He’s already tripping over himself trying to get to the infield."
Lukas chuckled recalling the story of the 1995 Derby, when he won the race with Michael Tabor's Thunder Gulch. He watched the race unfold with the aforementioned Young, co-owner of Timber Country.
"We're standing there together, [and] we run third," Lukas said. "And I said, 'Bill, I thought we ran a hell of a race. We'll probably move forward from this. He looked like he really tried. I don't know if we could have gotten much of a better effort out of him.' And Bill says to me, 'Wayne, don't worry about it, you worked hard, it was just fine. We were glad to be a part of it.'
Then he said, 'Who won the race?' I said, 'I did.'"