Hall of Fame trainer Lukas backs Pletcher in Preakness

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BALTIMORE — There once was a time when Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would feel absolutely awful about not having a horse in the Preakness.

Standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday, his signature cowboy hat planted squarely on his head, the six-time Preakness winner seemed genuinely comfortable with the situation.

“I’d be awful selfish if I was kicking the dirt and saying, `Damn, I don’t have one,’ as good as this place has been to me,” Lukas said.

Though he doesn’t have a horse in the race, he does have a friend in it: Former assistant Todd Pletcher, who will be saddle Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown hopeful Always Dreaming on Saturday evening.

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“I can relish that and enjoy that, too,” Lukas said.

That’s what happened at Churchill Downs, when Lukas had no entrant but was overcome with joy while watching Always Dreaming approach the finish line.

“I went crazy when they were at the 5/8 pole,” Lukas said. “I was banging and tipping over chairs. My wife said, `I’ve never seen you that excited,’ and I said, `That’s our guy.”‘

Pletcher worked under Lukas for well over half a decade before going out on his own in the winter of 1995.

“We had the strongest stable in the world, probably, and to leave a secure assistant job was a tough decision to make – and an intimidating one,” Pletcher recalled. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I was just hoping to accumulate enough horses to get going and establish a reputation.”

Turns out, Lukas and Pletcher are as successful individually as they were as a team.

Lukas, 81, has won 14 Triple Crown races and owns 20 victories in the Breeder’s Cup. Pletcher has captured the Eclipse Award seven times as Trainer of the Year, won the Kentucky Derby twice and made millions of dollars.

“He’s created his own legacy and made some changes that he thought were right,” Lukas observed. “I see a lot of our organization in the way he runs his barn. It’s pretty obvious he had that discipline.”

Lukas knows his hard-working, success-driven prot�g� was bound to do well regardless of his schooling.

“I don’t want to take a lot of credit for his career, frankly,” Lukas insisted. “I think he’s his own person and he was going to be good if he never met me. And he probably helped me as much as I helped him.”

Pletcher isn’t so sure.

“If you work for someone for seven years, you certainly learn a lot of things from him,” the 49-year-old said. “I always thought one of his many strengths was when he got a horse in form, his ability to maintain them in form for a long time.”

Lukas this week is running 3-year-old Aquamarine in the $200,000 Chick Lang and 3-year-old filly My Sweet Stella in the Hilltop on grass. Both are owned by Zayat Stables, which two years ago won the Preakness with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Though he’s well past retirement age, Lukas remains active in the sport and fully expects to mount a horse in the 2018 Preakness.

“My 2-years-old are impressing me,” he said. “I think we’ll be back here next year, I really do.”

Lukas and Pletcher remain close friends and won’t hesitate to call upon one another for advice. If Lukas could impress upon Pletcher just one thing, it would be to savor the moment and take it all in.

“I don’t think he’s enjoying it as much as he should,” Lukas said. “That was one of the things I regretted through my career. There were some weekends when we won three or four Grade 1s and I would say, `What are we going to do next week?”‘

Lukas recalls winning a Preakness and then driving to a fast-food joint in Baltimore, where he ate chicken while sitting alone.

“There were a couple of young guys there saying, `That looks like the guy who won the Preakness,”‘ Lukas said. “Pretty soon they came over and we’re all having chicken together.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.