04/19/2012 2:08PM

Q&A: Trainer D. Wayne Lukas

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Photos by Z/Keeneland

A Hall of Fame trainer and a four-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, he is hoping Optimizer can represent him May 5 in this year’s Derby, which is expected to include horses trained by former assistants Todd Pletcher (Gemologist and possibly El Padrino), Mike Maker (Hansen), and Kiaran McLaughlin (Alpha). He was interviewed last weekend at Oaklawn Park.

Birthdate: Sept. 2, 1935, in Antigo, Wisc.

Family: divorced; son, Jeff

When you look at the trainers of some of the top contenders for this year’s Derby, a few of the names that jump out are Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, and Kiaran McLaughlin: Those are my guys. They were around for a lot of our champions, preparing them for that run of Derbies that we had. I’m proud of that. It would be great if I could get one in there with them. We’re all connected. It’s no surprise to me that they are doing well, because they were all outstanding young men when they were working for me. They come from different backgrounds, and they have different personalities, but they were all very good. Another of my former assistants, Mike Marlow, is working for Bob Baffert in California. I talked Bob into hiring him. Bob is based at Santa Anita. Mike handles the horses at Hollywood Park. Bob said to me, “When he says one is ready, I don’t question it.”

You’re a big basketball fan. From the basketball world, who do you think your legacy as mentor of trainers compares to? It’s interesting you ask that, because I was talking to Bill Parcells about this the other day, and we thought how my career and Bobby Knight’s career are so parallel. Todd came along and has won all those Eclipses and money titles, just like Bobby Knight had Coach K [Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski] as his number-one disciple. Coach K is now ahead of Knight in wins, and Todd is ahead of me in some departments. But not all. We won six Triple Crown races in a row. That might take some doing! I think that one might stay a while. That one might hold up.

That is hard to fathom, six Triple Crown races in a row: I wish I’d have soaked it up and enjoyed it. There was so much going on. You’re into the sales, developing 2-year-olds. I didn’t soak it up and think of the magnitude of that run. That’s a hell of a run. At the time I was thinking, “Who do we run tomorrow?” I wish I’d have smelled the roses a little more. I remember when we won our first classic [1980 Preakness] with Codex, I told Jeff, “Ah, hell, we’ll knock a few more of these out.” But it took another eight years for the next one, until Winning Colors [1988 Derby].

Speaking of Jeff, who was seriously injured by Tabasco Cat in December 1993, how is he doing these days? He was so intense, but after the injury, he became laid-back and content with his life. He’s grateful he’s here. He knows his limitations. He lives in Atoka, Okla., and works for a bank there. He works with my old business manager, David Burrage. The doctor who saved him, Bill Caton, just called me the other day. He said he’s coming to the Derby and wanted to know if I could get him tickets. I’ll do anything for him.

Let me tell you a story. Three years after the accident, Jeff wasn’t feeling that well. He was falling down, his equilibrium was off. Dr. Caton said, “Send him to me,” to live with him. He’s one of the best head-trauma specialists in the world. He had Jeff live in his house for 10 days. He wanted to watch him in all aspects. And after that he adjusted his therapies and medications. He didn’t just say, “Send him to the office.” He took him into his own home. So I think I can get him some Derby tickets.

Now that the Oaklawn meet is ending, you are heading to Churchill Downs. How many horses do you have these days? I have 42 head. I’m at the point in my career where I keep them all in one place. I don’t want to have 20 head at Monmouth.

You were a pioneer, though, of having horses at multiple spots, taking what Jack Van Berg had done to another level: We turned the attitude of just seeing what was in front of you, the ones you had on hand, and just running at that particular track. We tried to make every horse useful. Not every one could play in the NFL, or the major leagues.

And you also were not afraid to ship: We went after every stake wherever it was. Omaha, New Jersey – if we thought a horse fit, he was on a plane. They used to call it “Wayne off the plane.” They would run very well off the plane. We’d go all over the place, like Todd and Steve Asmussen do now.

You’ve had so many good horses, so this is a tough call, but who is the best horse you trained? One of the best was Grand Canyon. I thought he’d win the Triple Crown. The day he won the Hollywood Futurity, we had Criminal Type in the previous race, and he runs a mile in 1:34 and 2. Then Grand Canyon, a 2-year-old, runs 1:33 flat. But when he was pulling up, the outrider bumped into him. He got blood clots in his leg, and that caused him to eventually founder.

Obviously, Landaluce was brilliant. And Lady’s Secret. They talk about Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, and granted, they were special. But look at Lady’s Secret’s run of Grade 1 races – bam, bam, bam – at every track. And Thunder Gulch. He wins the Fountain of Youth, the Florida Derby, runs fourth in the Blue Grass, wins the Kentucky Derby, runs third in the Preakness, wins the Belmont, goes out to California and wins the Swaps, then wins the Travers. He was a warrior.

Do you still enjoy this as much as before? I still get up at 3:30 every morning. I haven’t missed a day of work in 12 years. I’m the first one through those gates every morning, and I graze my own horses every afternoon. I’m single. My relationships are well documented. Those women had no shot.