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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

COACH LUKAS HAS A NOT SO SECRET WEAPON FOR THE DERBY

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 27, 2022 Few people in life are blessed to have as many acts as Darrell Wayne Lukas has had. And, in his latest reincarnation, it is appropriate that a filly shall lead the way.

Thus far, anyway.

For the who were among the missing when Lukas reinvented Thoroughbred racing to his own image and likeness, there were many stops along the way for a legendary horseman.

From high school teacher and basketball coach to the Quarter-Horse Hall of Fame, to the Thoroughbred Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, Lukas always was about championships; 24 on the Quarter Horse side to go with 25 Eclipse champions to come.

In the end, “Coach” never stopped being a mentor. When recognized at his Thoroughbred Hall of Fame induction, he shared the stage in Saratoga with five of his most recognizable disciples, including his most accomplished pupil, Todd Pletcher.

Lukas was racing’s first $100 million man at a time when purses were a mere seven-figures, unlike some of today’s obscene oil-glutted prizes. Of course, his 20 Breeders’ Cup victories helped make him the sport’s leading money-earner 14 times.

Lukas blazed the trail, transforming the way this disparate national sport is played. Recall the phrase “D Wayne off the plane?” This new approach to shipping made him Thoroughbred racing’s first corporate raider.

The press loved him, and still does. When stuck for a story on deadline, you went to the Lukas barn for an audience with a human quote machine. You left his shed with a notepad full of anecdotes and information that made the writers better at their job.

The stories were not only interesting but informative; such as learning that Fair Grounds’ long stretch and surface approximated that of Churchill Downs, or that it was possible to win the Preakness without a workout in between the Triple Crown’s first two legs.

Lukas placed his horses aggressively, sometimes to a fault. Leroy Jolley told a colleague once that “if Lukas ever learned how to back off a horse, he’d be God.”

The great Lady’s Secret, 1986 Horse of the Year, taught the coach a hard lesson when Chris McCarron was forced to pull her up soon after entering the backstretch in the first race on a Monday in Saratoga the next year.

When Lukas celebrates a birthday on SEP 2, it will be his 87th, making the B-roll yesterday on TVG all the more remarkable; Lukas astride that gorgeous pony, buttoned up to fight the elements on a 30-degree morning in Hot Springs. This is a man who will die with his boots on.

Useful to recall, now that we’re in the height of Triple Crown prep season, he’s won the Preakness six times, has won four Belmonts, and among his four Derby winners was the filly Winning Colors in 1988. Which brings us to Saturday’s G3 Honeybee Stakes and Secret Oath.

For the third consecutive time, Secret Oath was a margin winner going two turns, taking a preliminary allowances by 8-1/2 lengths, the Martha Washington by 7-1/4, and the Honeybee by 7-1/2 at the end while spotting the place and show finishers five lengths.

But the real story is the manner of her victories. In the Martha Washington, Luis Contreras spent the first five furlongs taking her back, grabbing her each time she wanted into the fray. “I thought we took her back too much,” said Lukas pre-race, “I like speed.”

In the Honeybee, Contreras had her closer and saving ground, a tack that made her task problematic as eventual runnerup Ice Orchid had her trapped on the fence, compelling Contreras to steady as they curled into the final turn.

Approaching headstretch, the filly burst through a seam on the rail and in a twinkling opened ground. Nearing midstretch, her stride lengthened. The further she ran, the longer her stride

A daughter of Arrogate from the Quiet American mare, Absinthe Minded, Secret Oath ran her final sixteenth in 06.59 en route to 1-1/16 miles in 1:44.74, nearly a full second faster than Rebel winner Un Ojo, who needed 1:45.69 to complete his task.

Parenthetically, Lukas’ 15-1 chance Ethereal Road, racing four wide throughout and battling head-to-head through the Rebel’s stretch, fought it out gamely but succumbed in the final strides. Now the question for the filly becomes Kentucky Oaks or Derby?

Paraphrasing Lukas post-race: “She’s nominated to the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby… I’m most happy that Oaklawn has changed the date of the Arkansas Derby from three weeks in front of the Kentucky Derby to five… If you have a filly, you’re going to get a little extra [time].”

There are many preps left, especially the significant 100-pointers at nine furlongs. But nothing that happened in the million-dollar Rebel should prevent the coach from seriously thinking about one last Derby hurrah, perhaps one that’s been in the making the past eight years.

In 2014 Lukas accepted a special Eclipse Award of Merit, and said:  “When they start giving you awards, they are trying to get you to retire. Well, you young trainers, get ready…

“We’re coming after you, so you’d better get up a little more early in the morning from now on. We’re coming after you with a vengeance.”

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7 Responses

  1. 1984-6,while playing at the big betting joint ( forgot its name!) In New Haven ,Conn. Lukas was winning many big races and so was great jockey Jorge Velazquez. Trainer and Jockey of the year (1985?)! Great * Pittsa* at Pepe-s,too ,near Yale U…. *If I could put Time in a bottle*…J.Croce.

    1. DWL clearly has had enormous impact on the modern game… now has two possible shots at the Derby

  2. JGR,
    Thanks for reminding me of “Time in a Bottle,” a song that always makes me tingle with its truth. Another is “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

    JP,
    DWL’s contagious enthusiasm for racing doesn’t seem diluted either by time or by the lowered frequency of top talent in his barn.

    While attending Santa Anita during the early 80s’, I often noticed him standing motionless in the public area just outside the saddling enclosure waiting for his charge(s) to arrive. It surprised me that I never saw him approached or joined by others at such times. Perhaps it was his inpenetrable sunglasses that discouraged the like of me.

  3. Great writeup. By the way, the preliminary Equibase figs have Un Ojo running a 91 for his Rebel win. Secret Oath has been given a 100 for the Honeybee. That 5 week gap from Ark Derby to KY Derby was a great observation. If she came out of the race in good order and her mind keeps going forward over the next couple of weeks, I don’t really see much reason to fade the colts next out, especially given how much larger the prize pool is in the Ark Derby vs the Fantasy as well as the fact that she doesn’t need Oaks points.

  4. Let the Tuesday Times roll ! Saw a Winning Favorites Chart which ,to me ,was surprising to read that 43 % of favorites have recently won and with a higher clip in SA,GF Park,TP ,OP and Tampa Bay,especially those races on dirt which had a much higher winning average,around 48%.Of course, i ignore if any less that 10 races have been considered. Synthetic at Gulf was 53 % out of 17 races.The highest Turf % was in Houston ,40% from 10 races.And? Well it reinforces my way of thinking that about 55=60 % of the time the favorites are in the Exactas and not necessarily with the second choice right behind them at the finish line. But ,i got more curious questions,such as,How many of these post time favs were Ml favorites? How many were Not favorites until a couple of minutes before the start of the race? How many winners were of the lower purses races,such as $ 4000 -30,000 claimers,maiden /claimers ? How many higher allowance,Stakes winners. ?? and could also ask about wet track conditions and how many AE [ outside] horses were involved and Won in Off Track conditions? Thinking,asking too much x a sunny,splendid day? Ok,maybe so but these numbers tell me some but not enough. But if that other input is hiding somewhere,i sure would like to decipher it. Plus $$ at the Aqueduct but with a present losing streak of Five races..Damn those muddy-good track conditions ..!

    1. JG, don’t think you’re helping yourself by overthinking the basis of those stats yielded.

      But I’m with you on muddy-good track conditions. With me it’s often the cliche I adhere to: Dark Day Don’t Play

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