01/13/2012 3:49PM

Oaklawn: Lukas returns to defend meet title


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. − Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a memorable meet at Oaklawn Park a year ago, when he won the title in what was his first training championship since 2005. He’s back for the new meet with 40 horses, including Optimizer, who is on deck for the $100,000 Smarty Jones for 3-year-olds Monday.

Lukas’s local division also includes Hamazing Destiny, the fifth-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint who is to start his season in the $50,000 King Cotton here Jan. 28, and Absinthe Minded, the winner of the $100,000 Bayakoa last season at Oaklawn. Lukas said his barn also includes “a few tigers” as far as young horses.

“It remains to be seen whether we’re even in contention, because I don’t know what the other guys out there [have in the barn],” said Lukas, who was 27 for 126 at the last meet. “There’s a lot of new faces, a lot of new trainers. We’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got, and to quote Pat Day, ‘If it’s God’s will, it will happen.’

“But we’re not concerned about winning the title,” he said. “The thing we are concerned about is developing some nice 3-year-olds in a good 3-year-old program. That’s our main focus.”

The leadoff horse is Optimizer, who will be a top contender in the Smarty Jones, a one-mile race that is part of the local 3-year-old series. Other 3-year-old races include the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest on Feb. 20, the Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel on March 17, and the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 14.

Optimizer, a son of English Channel who races for his breeder, Bluegrass Hall, won his career debut in a 1 1/16-mile turf race at Saratoga on Aug. 6. He would go on to run third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in October and fourth in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in November.

“His last race was the Kentucky Jockey Club,” Lukas said. “That was a good race. He finished strong and had gotten parked out wide. He’s had very bad draws every time he’s run, believe it or not.

“But he’s training well. I think he’s a true, genuine route horse,” he said. “You know, going anything shorter than a mile is probably going to compromise anything in his style. I’m going to run him in the Smarty Jones. But as the races get longer I think he’s probably going to be a late-developer, slip underneath the radar in the spring a little bit until we start running those mile-and-an-eighth preps, and I think he’ll be right there. I really think he’d run a mile and a quarter today. He’s that kind of horse.”

Lukas has won 13 Triple Crown races, including four runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

Full field projected for Smarty Jones

Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope said Friday morning that he was expecting 12 horses for the Smarty Jones. Among them will be On Fire Baby, a filly who won the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Reckless Jerry, who was second in the $300,000 Springboard Mile, will also run, said his trainer, Kenny Smith.

Caleb’s Posse has solid first work

Caleb’s Posse, who is up for champion 3-year-old and champion sprinter at the Eclipse Awards on Monday, came out of his first breeze of the season in good order, said his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel. The horse went three-eighths in 36.80 on Thursday.

“He’s out there tearing ’em up,” Von Hemel said. “It was a good work, nice and smooth, and he was happy to get to do something.”

Von Hemel is in no rush with Caleb’s Posse, who in his last start won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Native Ruler retired to Iowa

Native Ruler, whose 10 career stakes wins included two runnings of the King Cotton at Oaklawn, has been retired and will stand stud this year at Abrahams Equine in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said his owner, Maggi Moss.

“He’s got some mares booked,” she said. “He will be my first venture into the breeding business, standing a stallion.”

Moss plans to breed Elizabeth Park, a multiple winner last year at Oaklawn whom she claimed at the meet, to Native Ruler. She had claimed Native Ruler for $25,000 out of his ninth career start. Overall, the horse won 17 of 41 starts and $712,296 and was trained for most of his career by Chris Richard. Native Ruler is an 8-year-old son of Elusive Quality.

◗ Atigun, the fifth-place finisher in the Kentucky Jockey Club, goes in the seventh race Sunday, a $50,000 optional claiming allowance at 1 1/16 miles that figures to produce starters for the Southwest. The co-feature is a $65,000 optional claiming sprint for 4-year-olds and up that drew Oaklawn stakes winner Uncle Brent.