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.
“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 protï¿½gï¿½ 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.”