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.”

Irish War Cry is 5-2 favorite in $1M Haskell Invitational

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OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) Irish War Cry, the runner up in the Belmont Stakes, is the 5-2 favorite in the $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds.

The richest race of the season at Monmouth Park drew a field of seven for the 50th edition on Sunday.

With a victory, Irish War Cry would join Thanks To Tony (1980) as the only New Jersey-bred winners of the state’s biggest thoroughbred stakes.

The Garden State connection runs even deeper. The race is named for Amory Haskell, the first chairman and president of Monmouth Park, whose daughter Isabelle de Tomaso bred and owns Irish War Cry.

The morning-line choice breaks from the rail with Rajiv Maragh aboard for trainer Graham Motion.

Irish War Cry was a top contender heading into the Kentucky Derby after winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. After chasing the early pacesetter, he faded to 10th.

Motion initially planned to give the horse time to regroup after the Derby and await the Haskell. The colt was training so well that Motion sent the horse to the 1+ mile Belmont.

It was a good decision. Irish War Cry led most of the way but was beaten two lengths by Tapwrit.

“At the end of the day, we are all very excited that we got to this point,” Motion said. “This was certainly our goal of the summer.”

Trainer Chad Brown sends out the second and third choices in the Haskell: the undefeated Timeline, 3-1, and Practical Joke, 4-1.

Timeline, winner of Monmouth’s Pegasus Stakes last month, is 4 for 4 coming into the biggest test of his career.

“He’s a horse that’s always shown a lot of natural ability,” Brown said. “I’ve had my eye on the Haskell for this horse for a long time. I felt this race would suit him.”

Javier Castellano will ride Timeline from post 3.

Practical Joke is alongside in post 4 with Joel Rosario in the saddle.

The full Haskell field, in post-position order with jockeys and odds: Irish War Cry, Maragh, 5-2; Battle of Midway, Flavien Prat, 5-1; Timeline, Castellano, 3-1; Practical Joke, Rosario, 4-1; McCraken, Brian Hernandez, Jr. 9-2; Hence, Paco Lopez, 12-1 and Girvin, Robby Albarado, 6-1.

The 1 1/8 miles Haskell is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race. The winner earns a qualifying berth in the $6 million Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar.

Arrogate remains on course for Pacific Classic at Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. (AP) Bob Baffert wasn’t beating himself up a day after Arrogate’s upset loss in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar that snapped the seven-race winning streak of the world’s top-ranked horse.

The Hall of Fame trainer said Sunday that other than getting a lot of dirt in his eyes and mouth the 4-year-old colt emerged in good physical condition after finishing fourth, beaten by 15 \ lengths as the 1-20 favorite.

Baffert says that as long as Arrogate continues working out well and nothing comes up, the colt will run in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19 at Del Mar. Baffert says Arrogate “will be ready next time.”

Arrogate was never better than fourth among the five-horse field during the race. Accelerate led all the way and won by 8 + lengths.