03/26/2009 11:00PM

A more mellow Lukas rebuilds


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is an intense and driven man with the kind of personality it took to lead North America in stable earnings a record 14 times between 1983 and 1997. But there is a softer side to him, too, and it has been more evident than ever this meet at Oaklawn.

Lukas said he is finally satisfied with his stable after spending the past several years rebuilding, and it shows. He is having fun in Hot Springs, and every time he wins a race here, Lukas selects a youngster from the crowd to join him in the winner's circle.

"I can even find one on a school day," he quipped.

"I started this about a year and a half ago, at Saratoga. I don't think you can create enough good will and let these people know we appreciate them coming to the races."

Lukas orders a winner's circle photo for the child, too.

Lukas won 10 national earnings titles from 1983 to 1992, then picked up another four from 1994-97. Along the way, he has trained a record 24 champions and won 13 Triple Crown races to tie the record set by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

But things quieted down for Lukas for much of this decade, a situation compounded by the deaths of two of his major-league clients, W.T. Young of Overbrook Farm and Bob Lewis. Now, however, it appears he is sitting on one of his strongest seasons in some time.

"I feel we're coming full cycle," Lukas said. "We're just now getting back filling the void."

Lukas, 73, estimates he lost about 80 percent of his stable with the deaths of Young, in January 2004, and Lewis, in February 2006. He now has 50 horses in training, not counting the 2-year-olds he has waiting in the wings for some fresh new clients. And while his numbers are still well below the 150 horses he carried when he was establishing earnings records, Lukas is pleased with the quality of his stable.

Lukas has a possible Kentucky Derby starter this year in Flying Private, who was second last Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End at Turfway. And he hopes Be Fair, a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Macho Again, will develop into a candidate for this year's Kentucky Oaks. For the upcoming Racing Festival of the South at Oaklawn, Lukas, the festival's all-time winningest trainer, has several prospects under consideration, including Flying Private, Be Fair, and Silver Edition.

"I think our quality is coming back by virtue of what we've been able to do in the sales ring," he said. "We always had a good quality stable when we got into the yearling sales, and we've been able to get back into the yearling sales in a big way the last few years."

During his rebuilding period, which began in earnest in 2006, his stable averaged about 45 wins a year and purse earnings of more than $2 million. And while the numbers are more than respectable, by the standards of Lukas - the first trainer to reach both $100 million in career purse earnings and then $200 million - the stable needed a fresh start. So, he left Southern California and set up shop in the Midwest, where he races in Kentucky and Arkansas. He also hits New York each summer for Saratoga.

Arkansas has played a key role in Lukas's restructuring. He set up a barn at Oaklawn for the first time in many years in 2006, because he had horses for Arkansas-based owner John Ed Anthony. Lukas has since established some new clients in the state, including Scott and Joe Ford, a father-and-son team who recently sold the cellular communications company Alltel and race as Westrock Stable. The Fords were the purchasers of a majority interest in one of Oaklawn's most impressive debut winners this meet, Hamazing Destiny. Lukas also purchased a half-dozen 2-year-olds on their behalf at recent sales in Florida.

"They're all well-bred," Lukas said, crediting the Fords' farm manager, John McKay, for helping screen through a large number of horses to find the best options at Ocala and Calder.

Among the purchases were an Unbridled's Song filly out of the former Lukas trainee Be Gentle, a multiple Grade 2 winner.

Lukas, who in the last three years has picked up horses for Marylou Whitney, said another new Arkansas-based client for him is Sam Winstead. In addition, the barn has 2-year-olds coming in for Legends, a racehorse investment fund that divides its purchased yearling prospects among Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito.

"They'll start showing up in the spring at Churchill," Lukas said of his horses for Legends.

And if this training gig doesn't work out for him, Lukas has demonstrated this meet that he has a future as a host for the racetrack version of "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

"They have the most interesting comments," said Lukas, recounting a recent conversation with a young boy. "I asked him if his dad bet on the horse. He said, 'No, he bet the four.' I said, 'Does your dad go to the races all the time?' He said yes and I said, 'What does your mom think?' He said, 'She doesn't like it every day!' "

Lukas erupts into laughter, slipping into his softer side for just a minute.