The old man’s still got it, sitting high atop his horse at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning, out on the track, overseeing his operation.
At age 86, this is what D. Wayne Lukas lives for, back in the sport’s biggest weekend with Secret Oath in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and Ethereal Road in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
“I don’t think I’d still be doing it if it was just the Wednesday races or something like that,” the trainer said Thursday, sitting in his office at his familiar Barn 44. “I wouldn’t have the same passion . ”
Ethereal Road will mark Lukas’ 50th starter in the Run for the Roses since his first (Partez) in 1981. He’s won four, starting with Winning Colors in 1988, followed by Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999.
He doesn’t get around as well as he used to. During the Keeneland Spring Meet, the trainer used a cane to get from the barns to the paddock and then the track. But he waves off questions about how much longer he wants to train. He still gets up at 3:15 each morning, even if he admits he gets to bed a bit earlier than in his younger days.
“I’m not chasing anything,” he said at Keeneland when asked about chasing his fifth win. “The horses seem to find me.”
After a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 26, Ethereal Road ran a disappointing seventh in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 9. In need of points to have a shot at making the Derby field, Lukas wheeled the colt back a week later for the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 16, where Ethereal Road finished fourth.
“Those two points,” Lukas said, “ended up getting him in.”
Indeed, when news came Monday morning that Un Ojo was a no-go for the 148th running, Ethereal Road was bumped up to No. 20 on the points leaderboard. Owned by Julie Gilbert and Aaron Sones, Ethereal Road then drew the No. 20 post position. He was put at 30-1 in Mike Battaglia’s morning line.
The Kentucky Derby will be Ethereal Road’s third race in less than a month.
“It’s not ideal,” Lukas admitted. “But we’ve got three weeks between the Lexington and the Derby, so I think it’ll be OK. It used to be shorter than that with the Lexington. ”
Back in 1999, Charismatic won the Lexington Stakes on April 18, then two weeks later gave Lukas that fourth Derby win. After winning the Preakness, the colt led in the stretch of the Belmont, but ended up suffering a fractured leg and finished third, spoiling Lukas’ chance of saddling the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“I think you’ve got 10 speed horses and 10 closers this year,” said Lukas, who has won 14 Triple Crown races. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Lukas has also won the Kentucky Oaks four times, starting with Blush with Pride in 1982. He followed that with Lucky Lucky Lucky in 1984, Open Mind in 1989 and Seaside Attraction in 1990.
Secret Oath is a serious contender for his fifth. The daughter of the late Arrogate won three consecutive races, including the Grade 3 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 26 before Lukas ran her against the boys in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 2. She finished a respectable third in the race won by Brad Cox’s Cyberknife.
“The Oaks is harder to tell,” Lukas said of Friday’s race, “because you’ve got some really good fillies in there.”
At 6-1, Briland Farm’s Secret Oath is fourth choice in the morning line behind Ashland Stakes winner Nest (5-2), Kathleen O. (7-2) and Echo Zulu (4-1). Kathleen O, Echo Zulu and Shahama (15-1) are all unbeaten.
Should Lukas pull the upset Saturday he would surpass Art Sherman, who was 77 with California Chrome in 2014, as the oldest trainer to win the race.
What does it mean to Lukas to be in this position at 86?
“It’s more for the owners than for me,” he said. “I like putting them in this position.”
When: 5:51 pm Friday
Where: Churchill Downs
Purse: $ 1.25 million
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
For: 3-year-old fillies
The field, with odds:
1. Secret Oath (6-1)
2. Nostalgic (15-1)
3. Hidden Connection (20-1)
4. Nest (5-2)
5. Goddess of Fire (15-1)
6. Yuugiri (30-1)
7. Echo Zulu (4-1)
8. Venti Valentine (20-1)
9. Desert Dawn (20-1)
10. Kathleen O. (7-2)
11. Cocktail Moments (30-1)
12. Candy Raid (30-1)
13. Shahama (15-1)
14. Turnerloose (20-1)
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