Hall of Fame trainer Lukas backs Pletcher in Preakness

Leave a comment

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.

Watch the Preakness on NBC

“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.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.