01/08/2014 5:09PM

Oaklawn Park: Lukas enters meet at top of game

Barbara D. Livingston
D. Wayne Lukas with Will Take Charge, who is being pointed for the Santa Anita Handicap.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas came into the Oaklawn Park meet a year ago with a pair of promising 3-year-olds in Oxbow and Will Take Charge. When the new season opens on Friday, he’ll be coming off one of the most significant years of his career.

Oxbow won the Preakness in May, and made Lukas, 78, the all-time leading trainer in Triple Crown wins, with 14, breaking a longstanding tie with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Will Take Charge, meanwhile, won the Travers and missed by a nose in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. On Wednesday, he was named an Eclipse Award finalist for both champion 3-year-old of 2013 and Horse of the Year, and if he wins either title he will be the 25th champion trained by Lukas. The winners will be announced Jan. 18, the same night Lukas will receive an Eclipse Award of Merit.

“I think last year was one of our better years,” said Lukas, who won four Eclipse Awards for champion trainer between 1985 and 1994. “I really felt like it was a gratifying season. We didn’t look down the shed row like we did in the 80s and have seven Grade 1 [horses] standing there looking over the webbings. We had two horses that we thought were talented, both looked good in February, and we were able to take them to the ultimate. I’m real pleased. I think that’s what happened this past year – I think we absolutely got the most out of our talent.”

Oxbow enters stud this season, while Will Take Charge is in training at Oaklawn. He won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in his last start Nov. 29, and could launch his 4-year-old season in either the Donn at Gulfstream on Feb. 8 or, more likely, the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8.

“I’m not ruling out the Donn completely, but we’re definitely targeting the Big Cap,” Lukas said. “The Breeders’ Cup is going to be back at Santa Anita, we’re going to get absolutely perfect weather, and the ship from here, meaning Hot Springs to California, would be a lot easier.”

Lukas said Will Take Charge’s schedule this year could very well include the Grade  2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 12. Willis Horton, who in December sold half-interest in the horse to Three Chimneys LLC, is a resident of Marshall, Ark., noted Lukas.

Will Take Charge is part of a 44-horse stable Lukas has on hand for the meet at Oaklawn. The barn includes Strong Mandate, with whom he won last year’s Hopeful at Saratoga. Strong Mandate was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his last start Nov. 2.

“Our chances were pretty much compromised from the 14-hole,” Lukas said of the Breeders’ Cup. “And I don’t know what we ran the first half-mile in, but it was blistering. The whole scenario – and that’s just horse racing – didn’t turn out, and I thought he fought very well through the stretch. He’s a special horse.”

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Lukas said Strong Mandate is being pointed for the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest on Feb. 17. His other targets will be the Grade 2, $600,000 Rebel at Oaklawn on March 15, the Arkansas Derby April 12, and then the Kentucky Derby.

“We’ll keep him right here and not ship, and roll into Louisville,” he said.

Lukas’s stable this year also includes Optimizer, a near-millionaire who was due to arrive earlier this week from Kentucky.

“He’s been training at Calumet, but he’s obviously not into a serious work tab yet,” Lukas said. “He’ll probably be ready to run April 1.”

Titletown Five, who races for a partnership led by former Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung, is back for the new season, as is Skyring, the winner of the Grade  2 Dixie at Pimlico, and stakes winner Laurie’s Rocket. Lukas has another handful of promising young horses for clients like Calumet, and Bob Baker and William Mack, who race Strong Mandate.

“We’ve got some other 3-year-olds we like a lot that could surface in April,” Lukas said, referring to preps for the Kentucky Derby.
Another promising runner, Unstoppable Colby, is a candidate for the Smarty Jones here or Lecomte at Fair Grounds, said Lukas.
The depth of Lukas’s barn has the trainer looking forward to the Oaklawn meet.

“We’ve got a nice workmanlike stable across the board,” he said. “I think were going to win some races. We’re a little top heavy in the maidens, and so that always makes for a good meet.”

He’s also hoping for another banner year.

“My passion and energy level is probably as strong as ever, maybe better,” Lukas said. “I’m really enthused about the spring, with what I’ve got in front of me. I think Strong Mandate could, you know, we still got that Triple Crown hanging out there somewhere. We’d like to put [it] on our résumé. And I’m looking forward to Will Take Charge’s handicap year. I think it’s going to be spectacular.”