The legendary D Wayne Lukas: back at Oaklawn, still coaching at 85

Horse Racing D Wayne Lukas trainer
D Wayne Lukas: back at regular haunt Oaklawn for 2021 meet. Photo: Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography

By Robert Yates/Oaklawn Park

USA: If it is hard to keep a good man down, what about a great trainer? The legendary D Wayne Lukas, 85, has returned to Oaklawn Park, his winter base for more than a decade, after recently losing another one of his longtime prominent clients in an era of horses going to other trainers, declining foal crops, and COVID-19.

But ‘The Coach’ is still coaching, among other things, overseeing a downsized stable of 27 horses, mentoring two 20-something female exercise riders and continuing to take his runners to the track each morning on a pony.

“We’re down in numbers, like most barns, other than two or three,” says Lukas, a former high-school basketball coach who was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1987 and 2011. 

“Some of them are up but we’re not. I think what we’ve got will give us a competitive meet – but I don’t have any grandiose ideas that we’re going to have a dominant meet.”

A four-time Eclipse Award winner as the country’s outstanding trainer (1985, 1986, 1987, and 1994), Lukas has several well-bred young prospects, notably Churchill Downs maiden special weights graduate Lock Up, a three-year-old Maclean’s Music half-brother to G1 winner Sinister Minister.

Lock Up is nominated to the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on January 22, the first of Oaklawn’s four ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ points races. Lukas’s most recent winner of any Triple Crown race was Oxbow, who became the trainer’s sixth Preakness victor in 2013; he has 14 Triple Crown race wins altogether.

“Lock Up just broke his maiden but he did it pretty impressively,” says Lukas. “You look at that video; it was very impressive, and the time was excellent. I’m sure his sheet numbers are going to be pretty good.”

Others to note are My Favorite Uncle, an unraced son of Uncle Mo, and Ram, a ridgling by American Pharoah who is half-brother to millionaire Coal Front.

Ram is winless in four starts but was second in a Churchill Downs maiden special weight route behind King Fury, who returned to win a $98,000 stakes at the same venue,

“I’m looking for Ram to especially improve this spring, and maybe get in the fray a little bit if everything goes good,” Lukas says. “He’s got some ability.”

Ram was purchased for $375,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by the now-deceased Robert C Baker and William L Mack, who had previously campaigned G1 winners Strong Mandate, Sporting Chance and Dublin with Lukas.

Horse Racing D Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert
Legendary pair at the barn: D Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert at Churchill Downs. Photo: Jon Kral

Lukas said Baker’s recent death represents the loss of another key client, following Eugene Klein (died in 1990), WT Young (2004), Bob Lewis (2006) and Bob French (2013). Some of Lukas’ best horses for Klein, Young, Lewis, and French included champions and/or Classic winners Lady’s Secret, Tank’s Prospect, Flanders, Grindstone, Charismatic, Timber Country, Serena’s Song, Capote and Landaluce. 

“I’m from the old school,” Lukas says. “The five major clients that I’ve had have all died. That hurts. You don’t replace Bob Lewis, somebody like that, at least in this age. That’s five guys that were 100% behind me in the sale ring and everything. But we’re here, 85 years old, on a pony every day. What the hell?”

Lukas owns or co-owns a handful of his horses, including the maiden Atoka, a four-year-old Union Rags colt with a string of bullet workouts at Oaklawn. Lukas’ right-hand man remains longtime assistant Sebastian ‘Bas’ Nicholl, while exercise riders Kaylee Crotchett and Jade Cunningham are learning the ropes under the Hall of Fame trainer. 

Crotchett, 22, said she will make her riding debut aboard Mr. Peterkin, a Lukas-trained three-year-old maiden, early in the 2021 Oaklawn meeting. 

“I’m trying to make Jade a top exercise rider,” Lukas says. “She’s tall. She’s really come along great. Kaylee, I’m going to use as a rider.”

Lukas, of course, already has an immaculate track record as a teacher. Several of his former assistants – including Pletcher, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart and three-time Oaklawn champion Bobby Barnett (1994, 1995 and 1996) – became stars after going out on their own.

“I’m still coaching,” Lukas says. “A couple of guys that have left me recently, they are calling me on the phone, trying to get advice on this and that. 

“I think once a coach, always a coach,” he goes on. “I don’t think you ever get away from that. I find myself even saying things where I don’t belong out there with some young guy. I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this with that horse?’ I find myself doing that.”

Lukas has been sidelined in recent years with heart and back problems and took a brief sabbatical in August because of COVID-19. But it’s hard to keep him down.

“I’m 100%,” he says. “In fact, I feel really good. My energy is better here than any place where I go. I think it’s the air. I think it’s the oxygen. What do they say? The trees filter the air. But I have more energy and go on less sleep here than any place I go. 

“I’ve got a beautiful home in the woods in Kentucky, but I feel better here than any place. You see why people come here and retire.”

Lukas has a home adjacent to the northeast corner of Oaklawn property. He has 324 victories, including 47 stakes, in his Oaklawn career. 

Overall he has amassed 4,842 thoroughbred victories and more than $282 million in purse earnings in his career, according to Equibase. Lukas was a 1999 inductee into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

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