04/28/2010 11:00PM

Lukas on way back to top

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won four Kentucky Derbies with Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, and Charismatic.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Wayne Lukas almost requires his own page in the Kentucky Derby media guide. Forty-three Lukas-trained 3-year-olds have contested the Derby. Four have won, equaling the second-highest training total in the race's 135-year history. For 20 years in a row, from 1981 to 2000, Lukas had at least one starter in the race.

But go back to 2008 and you will find an empire in decline. Derby-wise, Lukas had run two in 2003, one in 2005, and none of them to any effect. Moreover, his entire operation appeared to be sliding out of the spotlight. His annual win totals slipped from the 60s and 70s with purse earnings of $4 million or $5 million in the early 2000s to just 45 wins and $1.9 million in purses during 2008. Team Lukas won but four graded stakes in 2006 and 2007 combined, and in 2008, the outfit went 0 for 28 in graded races.

As the calendar turned to 2009, Lukas was 73 years old. His Hall of Fame plaque had been bronzed years ago. He had altered the course of Thoroughbred racing with his Derby-or-damned approach. A cadre of his former assistants had made their mark on the sport. But if you thought you were seeing the last of Wayne Lukas, you did not know Wayne Lukas very well.

"The thing about Wayne, you can never count him out," three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert opined this week. "He's tough. He's a fierce competitor. I used to joke around that if you're going to shoot him, you'd better use more than one or two bullets. You'd better empty out the chamber."

Indeed, it is Lukas who still has ammunition. Lukas found new owners who were willing to step up to the plate and spend for young horses at auction, and not only is he off to his best start in years in 2010, with 24 wins and $1.2 million in purses already in the bank, Lukas has made it back to the Derby. Sure, he was here last year, too, but Flying Private looked overmatched in the Derby and ran that way, too, finishing 19th. Dublin, a $525,000 Afleet Alex colt owned by 15-year Lukas clients Robert Baker and William Mack, is cut from different cloth. Like his chances on Saturday or not, it can't be argued that Dublin doesn't belong. He won the Grade 1 Hopeful last summer at Saratoga, and after a rocky conclusion to his 2-year-old campaign, Dublin finished second once and third twice in the three graded route stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, Lukas's winter base these days.

Lukas calls Dublin the best horse he's brought to the Derby since Charismatic, who won in 1999.

"I liked Charismatic - you guys didn't," Lukas said to a handful of media types gathered outside his barn office Tuesday morning.

That is classic Lukas-speak: Willing to engage the media for long sessions, but regularly putting them in their place. "You guys" is one of his favorite modes of address.

He said it again Tuesday while speaking about the shadowy side of his Derby record - the many horses that, on paper, at least, looked like vanity entries. Lukas has more Derby wins than any trainer save Ben Jones, but he also has far more losses than any trainer in Derby history. Thirty-three of his 43 starters have failed to finish third or better.

"The way we operate, we buy a lot of yearlings," Lukas said. "It's hard to stand at the sales ring and ask a guy to bid $250,000 or $450,000 for a horse and say to him two years later that he's eligible for the Derby but we're not going to run, that he's not realistically a Derby horse. You almost have to run in order to fuel things for years to come. To represent them, you've almost got to say, 'Look, if that's where you want to go, that's where we're going.' And I've always done that. There's been a few instances where I really felt like it was stretching our imagination. One of them, you guys barbecued me pretty good on, and that was Deeds Not Words. And yet that was not my decision. I went over to the press conference and everybody said 'You're trying to keep a Derby string going.' What was I going to say? 'No, that's not the case?' You can't throw your clients under the bus."

Deeds Not Word finished 13th in the 1997 Derby, Lukas's 18th straight appearance in the race. Lukas might have taken a barbecuing that year, but next season he finished fifth with Cape Town. The year after that, he was back in the winner's circle with Charismatic.

"Barbecue this," you can almost imagine him saying.

Lukas was doing business with big-spending Thoroughbred Legends Stable until last winter, and he still has relatively new clients Bill and Scott Ford, Little Rock, Ark., residents who race as Westrock Stable.

"I didn't recruit them - they found me," Lukas said. 'I spoke at a banquet in Little Rock at the chamber of commerce, and when it was over they walked up and introduced themselves."

Lukas then introduced them to yearling and 2-year-old sales. Westrock bought a number of horses in 2009 and has had success with Tidal Pool, a $220,000 purchase and a top-end contender in this year's Kentucky Oaks. The colt Northern Giant ($150,000) and filly Decelerator ($250,000) also have been successful, but other expensive horses have not done well. Mesa Vista, a $500,000 purchase, is an eight-race maiden who has never been better than third; $700,000 Pirate Queen has been sixth, sixth, and eighth in three starts; $240,000 Soundman has won just one of 12 starts. The idea is that one or two big hits will pay for the misses and that along the way the new owners will get some thrills.

"We tell the new clientele going in, look, if you want to keep it quiet, just have a few horses, run a mom-and-pop operation, get another guy, because we're going to put you on the front of the magazine covers and get you right here where you should be," Lukas said. "That's our sales pitch."

Lukas estimates he had to replace 85 percent of his stable with the death of owner Bob Lewis and longtime client Overbrook Farm's decision to disperse its operation. Don't look now, but Lukas is back up to 65 horses again.

"It doesn't surprise me," answered two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito when asked about Lukas's newest crop of deep-pocketed owners. "That's who he is. That's his personality, and that's what makes him good. Wayne has excelled in recruiting."

Lukas still awakens every morning at 3:30. He's one of the first trainers through the stable gate each day. His influence on the sport sometimes glows as bright as ever: In Saturday's Derby, seven of the 20 entrants are trained by Lukas or one of his former assistants - Todd Pletcher and Mike Maker. And Lukas said the idea of pulling back or getting out holds no appeal.

"This is not a physical job," Lukas said. "So as long as you stay sharp mentally, experience is the best thing you got going for you. When I think what I was doing with them 30 years ago, they should've picked up my license. I'll be 75 this summer. I ride every single day. I'll just ride out there one day, I'll fall off, and they'll harrow me in. I'm not going anywhere."