ESPN Horse Racing

Doing it Wayne's Way
By Kenny Rice
Special to

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is the closest thing racing will ever have to Frank Sinatra. Just as there will never be another Ol' Blue Eyes, there will never be another D. Wayne.

D. Wayne Lukas
D. Wayne Lukas (right) with owner William Mack following the April 20 Lexington Stakes.
Lukas has always done things his way, starting in the late 1970's when he had the audacity to think a Quarter Horse conditioner could revolutionize Thoroughbred training. And doing things his way has meant perpetually being tobe in Louisville on the first Saturday in May -- a has him with 38 (going on 39) Derby starters. That number is double of any trainerin history except for H.J. "Dick" Thompson, who had 24 starters.(He's also the man with whom Lukas is tied for second in the number of Derbys won with four; both are second only to trainer Ben Jones, who won six.)

After having his record 20-straight Kentucky Derby streak stopped last year, Lukas returns in 2002 with Proud Citizen, the 8-1 winner of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes, a horse who prior to that victory, wasn't even a blip on most observers' Derby radar.

For a man who had a brief career as a college basketball coach, the Kentucky Derby is the Final Four. It is so important for him to be therethat there have been years he has entered some questionable candidates -- Deeds Not Words in 1997 immediately comes to mind. The streak was kept alive that year, but the horse ran last, ultimately proving he wasn't Derby worthy. But Lukas wasn't worthy either ... of the highly personal and vindictive criticism he received from some members of the media. Listening to them, it was as if Lukas had permanently tainted the race he clearly values above all others. And by the way, this is an area Wayne clearly differs from Sinatra, for Lukas has yet to punch a member of the press corps, though the thought has surely crossed his mind.

Doing it Wayne's way has always been unconventional, and sometimes controversial.

  • He bought horses based on their athletic appearance thumbing his nose at pedigree only purists. If it looked like a runner, only then did he check the bloodline.
  • He sent horses nationwide -- from Santa Anita to Monmouth -- to barns landscaped with flowers and tiny manicured lawns. Let others just have a barn, he had a place of business. Let others say he ran too many times, he just set record for wins and earnings.
  • His focus on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile races, accounting for 9 of his record 16 Cup victories; a particular bane of Lukas opponents claiming he pushed young horse too hard -- that too many didn't have careers past two. But owners haven't stopped signing up.
  • Overbrook Farm owner W.T. Young told me after his Boston Harbor won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, "Wayne doesn't play golf, doesn't have a hobby. His passion is his work and he pushes himself harder than any horse. When I started in this business, I researched intensely and the one name that came up for me to deal with as a trainer was Lukas."

    Young's Cat Thief was a $41.20 longshot winner of the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic, yet another time Lukas was at his best when overlooked. It's a role he seems to relish: getting the big win with the forgotten horse -- a Derby with Thunder Gulch or Charismatic, a Belmont with Commendable or a Breeders' Cup Distaff with Spain.

    And even though she was far from a long shot, Lukas is one of only three trainers to win the Kentucky Derby with a filly, when Winning Colors wired the field in 1988 for his first garland of roses.

    Never count him out, because he always seems to find a way to win.

    Lukas' career appeared to be over after top client Eugene Klein passed away. Klein, a one-time owner of the San Diego Chargers, was the cash behind early Lukas successes like 1986 Horse of the Year Lady's Secret, and of course, Winning Colors. But Lukas survived, teaming with Calumet Farm to campaign another Horse of the Year in 1990, Criminal Type. When that farm went bankrupt, it appeared Lukas might go down with it. Instead, he roared back to dominate the 1990's, a decade that culminated with his induction into the Hall of Fame.

    Does Proud Citizen have a shot at winning the Derby? Of course not. Will Citizen Wayne take that as insult? Never. He's back in the role he loves the most

    Lukas 'Proud' winner in Lexington Stakes