Trainer Lukas savoring first Kentucky Derby berth since 2015

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) The smile on D. Wayne Lukas’ face shows how much he still loves what he’s doing.

The 82-year-old trainer Hall of Fame trainer is still going strong, and especially enjoys this week. Lukas is back in the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2015 with colt Bravazo running on Saturday, which has the four-time winner savoring being part of horse racing’s crown jewel.

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“I probably enjoy it a little bit more now,” said Lukas, who has earned more than $278 million lifetime and won 4,804 races, including 14 Triple Crown starts.

“I know that isn’t going to go on forever and I enjoy the whole atmosphere. It’s easier for me. The press conferences, everything, is a little easier. I’ve been there and know when to push and pull on that deal a little bit.”

Lukas’ return comes 30 years after his first Derby win with Winning Colors started an impressive run that included triumphs by Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (’96) and Charismatic (’99).

For Lukas’ fellow horsemen, the comeback also seems to have added wholeness to this year’s Derby.

“We need Wayne,” said fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whom Lukas calls a good friend. “Wayne is so important to this race because he always set the bar for me. I want to be where Wayne is.”

Todd Pletcher, Lukas’ onetime protege’ who is on the verge of breaking his mentor’s record of 48 Derby starters, said: “The Derby is always better when Wayne’s in it.”

Lukas always believed he’d back in the Derby and said his gut feeling that some horses under his watch were not Derby-ready led him to be a race spectator. Although Bravazo ran eighth in the Louisiana Derby and is among four 50-1 longshots in Saturday’s 20-horse Kentucky Derby field , the trainer views the colt’s two wins before the Louisiana Derby as proof of his worthiness.

Lukas is also motivated to give Calumet Farm its record ninth Derby winner and first since Forward Pass was awarded the win 50 years ago after Dancer’s Image was disqualified for a failed postrace drug test.

While Lukas noted that owners determine whether to run a horse, his experience and success carries weight in some decisions. History clearly seems to have factored in Bravazo’s case, which is fitting for Calumet and Lukas since both have made their share of it in the Derby.

“You’ve got Calumet Farm, and it would be something to put them back out,” Lukas added.

The pairing of trainer and farm appears tailor made, but Lukas has maintained a physical and sentimental presence at Churchill Downs regardless of his participation in the marquee race.

Lukas’ barn is just off the second turn entering the track’s backstretch is a required stop for horsemen, jockeys, media and spectators. The time away has fueled a give-back philosophy that has the octogenarian chatting up folks who drop by, and standing outside observing how the sport he loves hums along.

Looking in on the Derby from outside allowed him to appreciate the race and evaluate the horses he hoped would put him back in the field. He has also enjoyed watching fellow trainers endure the same trial and error with pupils, as he did decades ago and now.

Excited as Lukas is to be back with Bravazo, he is even more encouraged about the 2-year-old prospects he has coming up. The end of his career doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon as the trainer in the wide-brimmed cowboy hat seems determined to remain a Derby fixture.

Mindful of his age, Lukas said the caveat is how long he will be physically able to do the job. To see him atop his horse watching his latest Derby charge at work leaves no doubt about his energy or desire.

“You feel like you’re blessed to have a career and nobody else is at that age to say that they’re here,” Lukas said. “You reflect and say maybe if it’s not this year, maybe next year, but there no guarantees there will be a next year.

“You reach out and take advantage of the whole thing if you’re enjoying it that much.”

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.