A life in the barn: 86-year-old Wayne Lukas prepares for Preakness with Secret Oath


Many years ago, when D. Wayne Lukas was a younger man, when he ruled the thoroughbred racing world like a Colossus in leather chaps while on horseback in the morning and $3,000 suits while in the paddock in the afternoon; when he commuted to his four separate racing divisions in a private jet (and sometimes in a helicopter); when he had more than 400 horses and nearly as many human employees; when he was not just larger than his ancient sport but larger than life; he was approached one day by his business manager, a practical man named David Burrage, who suggested to Lukas that perhaps it was time to install a more corporate culture at D. Wayne Lukas Racing Stables. Starting with paid vacation for his managers, among them a handful of twenty- and thirty-something young assistant trainers who would go on to terrific solo careers, and also Lukas’s son, and only child, Jeff.

Lukas was aghast at the idea. “What are you talking about?” he said to Burrage. “These guys won’t want to do that. Jeff won’t want to do that.” Burrage gently instructed his boss: “Actually, they all want vacation and Jeff was the first one to agree to it.” Grudgingly, almost disbelievingly, Lukas agreed to grant some leave to his assistants. But decades later, the incident stays with Burrage, 66, who worked for Lukas from 1980-’99. “I realized then, that Wayne’s vacation was going to the stable at four o’clock in the morning every day,” says Burrage. “We all know a lot of people who love what they do, but Wayne is different from most of them. He loves what he does, but he only loves that one thing. And he does it all the time, and he doesn’t do anything else.

“I’ve not, in my entire life, met anyone like him.”

It is a story, one among many like it, that takes on fresh relevance. On the day before the Kentucky Derby, a filly named Secret Oath, trained by 86-year-old Darrell Wayne Lukas, won the Kentucky Oaks, a race that doesn’t penetrate the mainstream sports world, but is a vitally important and traditional race for three-year-old fillies and an integral part of Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. It has meaning.

And in the aftermath of Secret Oath’s Oaks victory, racing fans saw a scene that was full of the familiar: Lukas making his way to the winners’ circle after a big race, wearing a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses and a Hollywood smile. It was as if a time capsule had been dug up from Churchill infield and popped open just when needed most. (Except: Lukas also walked with the aid of a cane, to ease the discomfort from his dodgy lower back, which he said his wife, Laurie, insisted upon; Laurie Lukas eye-rolled that one: “He likes the cane,” she said. “He just doesn’t like to admit that he likes it”).

Racing had come to Kentucky for Derby weekend in its seemingly perpetual state of crisis, framed by ongoing scandal and uncertainty. In need of good news. Lukas’s win was a cleansing breath – if not resolution, relief. And it was not his only stamp on the weekend; hours before the Oaks, Lukas had scratched three-year-old Ethereal Road from the Kentucky Derby with a minor illness, allowing Rich Strike to enter from the also eligible list, and setting the stage for his stunning victory on Saturday evening.

And it continues: This weekend Lukas will run Secret Oath against eight colts in the Preakness. He’s won the race six times, most recently in 2013 with Oxbow in a victory that many – including Lukas himself – logically assumed might be his last on the sport’s biggest stages. “I love the main events,” says Lukas. “When we won the Preakness with Oxbow, at the time, I didn’t know if we’d have another one. But this is what I thrive on, going after the big ones.” The absence of Rich Strike, whose owner has decided to skip the Preakness, pushes Lukas further into the spotlight.

There is no secret to Lukas’s longevity. (That doesn’t mean there have not been challenges, sacrifice, and loss; keep reading). “Wayne is a horseman,” says Laurie. “It really is that simple.”

How simple? Last week when I reached out to schedule an interview with Wayne, Laurie explained that she would have to confirm with Wayne the next day, because he was asleep. It was 7:30 p.m. He rises at 3:30 a.m., drives 25 minutes to his barn at Churchill Downs, arriving no later than 4:20 a.m. “I’m always the first trainer on the grounds,” says Lukas, and if that is not true, it is nevertheless put forth as a challenge. Those 400 horses he once trained are now 29. “I like them all in one barn,” says Lukas. He still gets up on his pony every day, though he climbs there from a small stepstool.

The Lukas Story is writ large across nearly a half-century of racing. He was first a boy raised around horses in rural Wisconsin, and then as an adult he was a high school teacher and basketball coach and then a quarter-horse trainer before switching to thoroughbreds in 1978 at the age of 43. He won his first classic race two years later (the Preakness with Codex), his first Breeders Cup and the first of four Eclipse awards as outstanding trainer in 1985, and the first of four Kentucky Derbies with filly Winning Colors in 1988. He likened his operation to a football team, yearlings to draft choices and big races to the Super Bowl. Some felt he pushed his horses too hard and burned through too much of his owners’ money, and his bravado could be off-putting, but there is little doubt he elevated the sport. It is rare that dominance engenders unconditional love. Also time has smoothed out Lukas’s rough edges, as time will do.

Lukas’s business plan was complicated, but also blessedly simple: Get to the barn first, every day. Outwork the competition. Win big races. There were wealthy owners, that jet, the chopper. (I saw Lukas win the 1987 Eclipse Award for trainer, and at his acceptance he told a story about having seen his name on a cheap message board 15 years earlier at a quarter horse event. Man, it just doesn’t get any better than this, he recalled thinking, and then paused for a beat while a fancy ballroom full of tuxedoes and gowns waited for the punch line. “Well, I’m here to tell you,” said Lukas. “It does.”). But all of that was ancillary.

“Even when we had it rolling, at the top of our game,” says Burrage, “Wayne was never really into all the hoopla. Sure, everybody enjoys the limelight. But Wayne just wanted to train horses. He wanted to make them better. That’s who he is. That’s been his singular focus. There are negatives to that. It’s tough on married life. Tough on family life.” (Lukas’s current marriage is his fifth, to strike one note). His single-mindedness has rewarded millions of racing fans.

One event irrevocably altered the course of Wayne’s life: In 1993, Jeff was run over by Tabasco Cat, a fast and ornery (assistant Dallas Stewart called him a “badass horse”) two-year-old who would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont. Jeff suffered a traumatic brain injury, and while he lived 23 more years, he never fully recovered and never again trained thoroughbreds alongside his father. (I chronicled Jeff’s journey in a 2013 Sports Illustrated story ). “If Jeff was there, I think I would have taken a lesser role,” says Wayne. “He had a real gift for working with horses.”

In Jeff’s absence, a family connection has grown. Wayne is close with Jeff’s son, Brady, 32, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who is currently stationed in St. Louis and drives to Churchill often. “Brady and Wayne are more like father and son than grandfather and son,” says Laurie. For Brady, the experience of watching Wayne win the Oaks connected dots; Wayne had trained the great fillies Lady’s Secret and Winning Colors, but their daily care was in Jeff’s hands. “That experience gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like with those fillies and with my dad,” says Brady. “It was pretty emotional for me.”

Jeff’s daughter, Kelly, 29, who was just 10 months old when Jeff was injured, is a physician’s assistant, living in Louisville, and often sees Wayne and Laurie.

Wayne’s passion has endured through a trying decade. In 2015, he received a pacemaker to address a heart issue. In August of 2020, he became seriously ill with COVID-19. “I really got it bad,” says Wayne. “I was weak, I was really having trouble breathing. One night, I was feeling so bad, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I said goodbye to my wife, to my grandchildren. Then I made it through the night. Wasn’t my turn.” (Brady notes that Wayne was taken briefly to the hospital, against his wishes. “I told him, ‘There’s a time to cowboy it, and there’s a time to get help. This is a time to get help,’” says Brady. “He’s really pretty incredible”).

Last December, Wayne was hospitalized just before Christmas, and doctors found four bleeding ulcers. According to Laurie, Wayne received at least four blood transfusions and needed months to fully regain his strength. On top of all this, he’s had that sore back for years. Nevertheless, he returned to the barn, and to the horse. “Of course we worry [about Wayne getting on horseback in the morning],” says Laurie. “But telling him to stay off the horse, that’s like taking away an older person’s car keys. I would not tell him that. And you know, he’s most comfortable on horseback; there’s something about it that doesn’t aggravate his back.” (This conversational trip leads to a question: When and how does this end? Laurie says, with a heavy dose of horseman’s humor, “Wayne’s idea is to just fall off his pony, and then the tractor comes along and harrows him under”). There’s more: Wayne assiduously avoids hanging with age peers, because, he says, “They just sit around and talk about how lousy they feel.” One of his favorite songs is Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let The Old Man In,” a rumination on fighting off old age.

And perhaps more moments remain. As Secret Oath rolled through the Churchill homestretch, beneath the spires, Brady and Kelly had been stuck in the crowd and fought through it to embrace their grandfather. Stewart, one of his assistants all those years ago, was in a neighboring box and hugged him, too. On the track, Todd Pletcher, the most successful of his former plebes, also wrapped him in an embrace. And Keiran McLaughlin was nearby, too, having retired as a trainer but now working as the agent for Secret Oath’s jockey, Luis Saez. It was all rather like a family reunion. “There was a different look in Wayne’s eyes,” says Laurie. “There were a lot of tears in the group.”

Brady says, “It was pretty special. He knows he’s not going to be doing this forever.”

He will be doing it this weekend in Baltimore. One more Preakness. One more filly. One man’s footprints sunk deeper into racing history.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Road to the Kentucky Derby: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race


The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win.  Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.

RELATED: Kingsbarns goes wire-to-wire in Louisiana Derby

This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.

In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.

As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.

As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.

RELATED: Arabian Knight off Kentucky Derby trail; will return later

This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.

Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.

As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners.  Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.

RELATED: Two Phil’s dominates Jeff Ruby Steaks

For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.

If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.

It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.

How to Watch the Florida Derby

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6pm ET
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.

Horse racing’s national anti-doping program starts

NBC Sports

Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field take another step forward with the launch of a new anti-doping program.

It’s an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as dole out uniform penalties to horses and trainers instead of the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: racetrack safety, which went into effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.

“It’s one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you’re going to be judged by the same standard,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said.

HISA’s Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit – its independent enforcement agency – has reached agreements with all of the state racing commissions and/or racetracks that will have live racing as of Monday.

Seven of the biggest racing states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma – will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.

In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with either current staff or hired its own personnel to collect samples. Post-race testing only in New York will be handled this way.

States that have live racing after mid-April are in discussion with the enforcement agency, HISA said.

The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.

“For the first time, racing’s labs will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards nationwide,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels, regardless of where they are located or compete.”

Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states have long operated under rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales would honor punishments meted out elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to game the system.

Lazarus said that in talking with horsemen they want three things from HISA: Catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication, and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers cannot control but can trigger positive tests.

“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.

HISA has been met with resistance in its short existence.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional, saying Congress gave too much authority to the group it established to oversee the racing industry. Congress tweaked the wording of the original legislation to fix that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to oversee HISA.

Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana to HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing it from operating, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.

As a result of the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program won’t begin in every state on Monday as Lazarus had hoped.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “We have to change some things, we have to see how some things go.”

There’s also been vocal opposition among some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change – as well as its cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.

“They’ve been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They’re having the opposite effect of what they’re saying … safety of the horse and rider. They’re doing absolutely the opposite.”

Calhoun spoke earlier this month at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association national convention in Louisiana.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.

“At the core of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players wish to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play scheme that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing,” he said at the convention.

Lazarus counters the criticism, saying, “We’re there to make racing better.”

She has said she’s aiming for transparent investigations and speedier resolutions of disputes. And Lazarus has spent much of her first year on the job trying to “overcommunicate and overeducate.”

“I’m really hopeful that the message is getting through,” she said.

There will be no trial period for infractions under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer medications to horses have had to get up to speed on the regulations as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.

“Change I think is always hard,” Lazarus said, “and this is like seismic change.”