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.

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.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.