Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens had similar rises in the early part of their careers. Bonds sustained it, plateaued to Hall of Fame status, then creamed and cleared his way into the Pantheon of Pariahs. Clemens raged so much he even threw a bat at Mike Piazza.
All this points to our latest person to rise, fall down, and rise again: D. Wayne Lukas. The career arc of The Coach has been well documented: Basketball coach, quarter horses, Triple Crown fame, Hall of Fame fame.
He rose to altitudes as high as the planes his horses flew on. He once got paid to fulfill people’s dreams, now he’s paid to spoil people’s dreams. He was once the King, an absolutist cut from the silk of Thomas Hobbes, but now he’s more of a constitutional monarch, but one who still can wield a heavy sword.
Lukas won the Travers Saturday, his first since 1995 when he won both the Derby and the Travers with Thunder Gulch. That was the last year he won a Triple Crown race and the Travers in the same year. He was the sprightly age of 61. At 77, he completed that elusive Daily Double with Oxbow and Will Take Charge, his 2013 1-2 punch (back to this in a moment).
Lukas, for many, many years, tanked. Perhaps that’s unfair; he did win the Belmont Stakes and Distaff in 2000 and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2002, but that was more of the long tail of his 90s Triple Crown success capped off with Charismatic. As he sank, his disciples took the loose rein.
Lukas won the Juvenile Fillies in 2005 with Folklore, but beyond that, it’s been a long, long time since Lukas felt relevant. He felt relevant only as the trainer who spawned the greatest set of assistants since Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren. You can actually see how Todd Pletcher, Lukas’s greatest apprentice, and maybe the most gifted trainee since Anakin Skywalker, has morphed into Lukas. Just look at the hair: completely silver. Yeah, he wins a lot, but you can see the mileage. Just ten years ago he looked like this. Here he is in 1990.
Lukas sat back and watched as Pletcher took over the earth faster than Sauron (minute 2:10); Kiaran McLaughlin won the Dubai World Cup, a Saratoga title and the Belmont Stakes; Dallas Stewart won the Stephen Foster and finished second in the Preakness and Kentucky Derby. Lukas was in the twilight of his career. His clients died or moved on. He persevered, wore his red blazer, and walked the long walk over and over again from the Saratoga paddock to his box in the clubhouse. If he won a race, he dragged some kid into the winners’ circle with him. He became more Arnold Palmer while his Tiger Woodses tore up the turf.
Then he started getting the clients again. He replaced the old with new, fresh muscle. His 2013 Triple Crown campaign saw him pit two colts against one another in the Rebel: Oxbow and Will Take Charge. It was up to these two to take him to the heights he knew not so long ago.
Oxbow was gritty and game. Will Take Charge plodded and waited. Will Take Charge ran Oxbow down in the Rebel this year in a stretch drive that would project, at least in terms of stretch drive, what Will Take Charge would do in the Travers. “It’s Lukas 1-2!”
Lukas had his Derby horses and they were contenders, both with different running styles. Lukas was clearly on the rise again. Oxbow won the Preakness and Lukas, who was once expected to win these races, has become the sleeper. He even took a subtle dig at his greatest protégé after the Travers:
"I was concerned about the fractions. I thought the fractions were way in favor of the horses that you all liked and not him," Lukas said, referring to Verrazano and Palace Malice. "When they threw up that half-mile and then the [1:13.43] for three quarters, I thought it was tailor made for the favorites. When you go 13 and four and you're a world-class horse, you're supposed to finish."
But the silver hair, the bad-ass sunglasses and perfectly crisp shirts, blazers and suits, are back. He rose, fell, and rose again. You’ve heard the one about the phoenix. Behold Lukas, red blazer, burning brighter for having weathered the fall.