After his high school graduation, Bob Baffert looked for a summer job galloping horses, and he hoped to work for D. Wayne Lukas. At the time, Lukas was the rising young star in Quarter Horse racing.
"Everybody wanted to be like D. Wayne Lukas," Baffert recalled. That included the kid from Arizona whose brief riding career already had convinced him to consider a future as a trainer. And so Baffert telephoned Lukas to ask for a job.
"When I got off the phone with him, I felt so good about horse racing and about myself," Baffert said. "He already hired somebody. But I felt so good after talking to him. And it was a lucky thing I didn't get the job. I wouldn't have lasted two weeks -- and I would have had to hear about it my whole life."
Lukas will celebrate his 80th birthday next month. But, no, that's not quite right. Others will celebrate it, not Lukas. He doesn't celebrate. He didn't even celebrate his first Kentucky Derby victory in 1988, having instead a late and solitary dinner at the Holiday Inn on Dixie Highway in Shively, Ky., a poor suburb of Louisville, just before the staff closed the dining room. And on Sept. 2, even though it will be his birthday, in the darkness of the morning's quiet hours, at about 4 o'clock, he no doubt will arrive at his Saratoga barn to begin a typically long work day. It's also a race day; so he won't pause to celebrate. He probably won't pause at all. That's precisely why the sport should pause to consider his contributions. In ways both subtle and profound, Lukas has changed the game. In the sport's modern era, nobody has been more influential.
"He didn't set the bar," Baffert said about Lukas. "He WAS the bar."
Baffert followed the path first traveled by Lukas, from Quarter Horse dominance to Triple Crown success. But if you look closely at many of today's prominent trainers -- such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen, Mike Maker, George Weaver, Mark Hennig, Dallas Stewart -- they've all felt the Lukas influence. Some worked for him, and others, like Baffert, saw him as a model of success.
"He changed Quarter Horse racing," Baffert said, recalling how in the 1970s Lukas would ship horses around, in and out, from one racetrack to another, to maximize their potential, "and then when he moved to Thoroughbreds, he changed the game there, too. He's been the most influential trainer of our time. And he always brought a lot of class to the sport."
Lukas trained 23 Quarter Horse champions, including the great Dash For Cash, before jumping to Thoroughbreds in the late 1970's. And then, while based in Southern California but readily traveling wherever the purses and opportunities were most lucrative, he topped the national trainers' standings for an entire decade. Lukas has been the national leader 14 times; nobody else has topped the earnings list more than nine times. Nobody has won more Triple Crown races (14), nobody has saddled more Breeders' Cup winners (20), nobody has campaigned more Eclipse Award winners (25) and nobody has influenced the sport more than Lukas.
To fully understand his influence you have to try to imagine the sport before he arrived. Trainers typically followed a routine they learned from an older trainer, who had learned it from an even older trainer, and few ever asked or wondered why they did what they did. But Lukas, who never worked for another trainer in his entire career and who had a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin, questioned everything. Why can't a top filly beat colts? Why do horses have to "blow out" three-eighths of a mile the day before they run? What's the most nutritious diet? Why can't a trainer divide his stable into divisions and then ship horses to whatever racetrack for whatever race they'll have the best chance of winning? And why not a white bridle?
Lukas wasn't wed to some handed-down routine. Most of all, he wasn't afraid to fail and wasn't intimidated by risk. He once won a Breeders' Cup race with a maiden (Hightail). He won major stakes with horses other trainers wouldn't have dared to enter, such as the Belmont Stakes with Commendable, the Preakness with Oxbow and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies with Take Charge Brandi.
Setting him apart most conspicuously from the crowd was always his attention to detail. He once built his own barn at a racetrack because the barn given him wasn't safe enough or sufficiently ventilated or just good enough for his horses and his employees, and around that barn he planted an array of flowers. It was all part of an attitude he nurtured, an attitude that insisted even the smallest detail matters. Precision mattered.
One morning, when a groom working for Lukas slapped a misbehaving horse, the trainer immediately jumped on the situation. He told the groom that he could be replaced much more easily than the horse. And if he ever slapped another horse, Lukas told the young man, he would be fired on the spot. Then Lukas took control of the horse himself, calmed the animal and walked him into his stall.
For Lukas, winning always has been an act of faith. And his faith -- in his staff, his abilities, his approach and, most of all, his horses -- never has wavered. Always looking forward, he's relentlessly positive, which is why, Baffert said, Lukas is the sport's great ambassador. But rather than an ambassadorship, Lukas aspires to a status that, to some, might seem modest but for him represents the ultimate recognition.
"When it's all done," Lukas said, meaning his career, "I'd just like to be known as a good horseman." Beyond that, he's most proud, he said, "of giving some of these guys a little push in the right direction." And the guys he pushed most effectively are some of today's leading trainers.
McLaughlin worked for Lukas from 1985 to 1992. On his first day, he recalled, he was to meet Lukas at 4 a.m. at a donut shop and from there ride with the trainer to the racetrack. Eager to begin his new job working for the nation's leading trainer, McLaughlin walked into the donut shop at 3:45 that morning, he recalled, and Lukas was already there, waiting.
"So we got to the track about four o'clock," McLaughlin said. "And from that day forward, I got to the track by four o'clock [in the morning]."
Except for once. Because of an electrical outage during the night, his alarm clock misfired, and McLaughlin arrived at the barn, he remembered, about 20 minutes late one morning. Lukas didn't say anything.
"He didn't have to," McLaughlin said. "He led by example, and he was never late."
After work, McLaughlin rushed out and bought three alarm clocks. He was never late again.
"He was a great mentor," McLaughlin said about Lukas, "a great teacher. He didn't just tell you to do something. He explained things. He never didn't answer a question I had. He made me a better trainer and a better person. I think everything, or most, of what I do was set in place in my years working for him."
Between semesters at the University of Arizona, Pletcher began working for Lukas as a groom. After graduation, in May of 1989, Pletcher became a foreman for the Lukas stable and, two years later, an assistant trainer. For the next four years, before stepping out on his own, Pletcher worked with some of the best horses in the country. During that time, Lukas, in effect, tutored his successor. In recent years, Pletcher has supplanted Lukas atop the all-time trainers' standings based on earnings.
"But I think his influence," Pletcher said about Lukas, "is so much more than his role as mentor and coach. His influence has been greater than that. I can't think of anybody who has revolutionized the training of racehorses so much."
Lukas might not have been the first trainer to have divisions. But he was the first to have bi-coastal divisions, the first to have barns at multiple major venues. He saw the big picture, and he embraced it.
"I think he would have been extremely successful at whatever he chose to do," Pletcher said about Lukas. "There are so many things a person could learn from him, but the thing that really impressed me most of all about Wayne was that whatever happened -- whether it was a Triple Crown win or a devastating loss, whatever the circumstances -- he was there at the barn the next morning with the same intensity, ready to go. He never took a day off. And you know some of those mornings after a horrible loss or after losing a horse to injury, he felt torn up inside, but he never would let anybody see that. He's really a remarkable man, and he's still going strong."
During a recent conversation, rather than talk about the many standout horses he has trained, the champions and the classic winners, Lukas preferred to talk about his 2-year-olds. He has, he said, some very promising youngsters in his barn.
Yes, as he approaches 80, Lukas is still going strong.