Rival trainers Baffert and Lukas share a strong friendship

Leave a comment

Bob Baffert has spent his whole life following D. Wayne Lukas.

As a teenager at the quarter horse track in Arizona where Baffert tagged along with his dad and learned about racing, he looked up to Lukas as a legend.

Preakness Stakes: What Time, Where to Watch and More.

“I’ll never forget when he came in with his fancy trailer and man, there’s Wayne Lukas,” Baffert said. “He was huge then. He’s always set the bar.”

Baffert even asked Lukas for a job out of high school. Lukas turned Baffert down, but in the four-plus decades since, they’ve developed a friendship as deep as their combined success.

They are two of the best thoroughbred trainers in racing history and their paths are crossing again this week at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. They will go head to head in the Preakness, a race that each has won six times.

“We’ve become good friends because we have a lot in common, we had a lot of quarter horse stories and friends that we knew coming up,” Baffert said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Baffert goes into the Preakness with Kentucky Derby winner Justify , the heavy favorite to advance to the Belmont Stakes with the chance to give the 65-year-old his second Triple Crown champion in four years. A win Saturday would tie the 83-year-old Lukas’ record of 14 Triple Crown victories.

Lukas said Baffert “is going to roll right past that” mark.

“Bob is an excellent horseman,” said Lukas, who is expected to start Bravazo and Sporting Chance in the Preakness. “Not only has he got a good clientele base and gets some nice horses, but he absolutely knows what to do with them.”

Baffert’s dad got him involved in horse racing at age 11 and he considers his father his mentor – but he holds Lukas in high regard. Lukas has been an icon and rival for Baffert over the years, especially in the 1990s and 2000s when owner Bob Lewis pitted the two against each other.

Calling Lukas one of the hardest workers he has ever seen, Baffert set out to duplicate those efforts with incredible success. Lukas and Baffert just kept winning – including a combined 34 Breeders Cup’ races to go along with the Triple Crown victories – and became closer along the way.

“The one thing that you quickly find out is who you can greatly respect and respect is what really starts to bond these friendships that we develop over the years,” Lukas said. “I have developed a deep friendship and respect with him and his whole family, (his wife) Jill and everybody for the simple reason that I think he’s a very good horseman and he does a very, very good job.”

Baffert has done such a good job that Lukas considers him one of the top three or four trainers in history. If Justify wins Saturday, it would tie him with 19th-century trainer R.W. Walden for the most Preakness victories.

Leading up to Saturday’s race, Baffert will again share a barn with Lukas, who is looking for his first win on the Triple Crown trail since 2013. Despite the drought, Lukas is still the standard by which many younger trainers measure themselves.

“To me, he is still above me,” Baffert said. “He thinks he’s going to win everything.”

As much as Baffert praises Lukas for changing quarter-horse and thoroughbred racing, Lukas acknowledges Baffert’s more recent impact. The old-school Lukas looks to Baffert’s management model now and jokes, “I’m saddling horses for him and I’m sort of his assistant.”

“Our game is more than just trying to race horses,” Lukas said. “It’s managing people, managing horses, developing studs and put them out, effecting the breeding industry, causing economic impact in the sale ring and Bob has done all of that. … Bob affects every facet of the industry in some way or another.”

Baffert has come a long way from the 18-year-old who Lukas had no job for back in the day. Baffert ended the 37-year-old Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah in 2015 and continues to build his resume race by race.

“I learned it by trial and error – mostly error,” Baffert said. “And I said (to Wayne), `I’m sure glad you turned me down, because you’d be taking all the credit for this.”‘

Second horse in 4 days dies at Santa Anita

Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES (AP) Santa Anita had its second horse death in four days when a gelding pulled up during a race Sunday and was euthanized a day later.

Twenty-five horses have now died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Spectacular Music was running in a six-furlong maiden claiming race when the jockey pulled the horse up on the backstretch shortly after leaving the gate.

The horse was taken off the course with a pelvis injury and the decision to euthanize him was made Monday morning.

On Friday, a 3-year-old horse broke down with a shoulder injury while galloping and was euthanized at the track.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

Leave a comment

BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”