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.

2018 Kentucky Derby: How to Watch, Post Time, Horses and More

“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.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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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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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.