BALTIMORE – He embodies the work ethic, with his ultimate goal to die with his boots on. At 83, trainer D. Wayne Lukas still gets up at 3:30 a.m. and heads to the barn. Like many super-achievers, The Coach doesn’t need much sleep, recharging with cat naps.
What about retiring someday? “Oh, maybe in 10 years.”
Not only does Lukas put in the hours, but he also logs miles like a long-distance trucker. On Tuesday, he drove a horse van from Louisville to drop off his Preakness runner, longshot Market King, at Pimlico’s stakes barn.
First one off the van was his stable pony, a white Appaloosa with gray and black markings. “Here’s Market King,” Lukas said. “He got pale on the trip.”
He pulled out of Churchill Downs’ backstretch at 5 a.m., hopped on I-64 and reached Pimlico by 3:15. A man famed for efficiency looked pleased, not weary, after 600 or so miles. “No traffic, beautiful weather,” Lukas said. “I told them I’d be here by 5, but it took us only 10 hours and 15 minutes.”
The Hall of Famer has won six Preaknesses, the last one in 2013 with Oxbow, and the first in 1980 with Codex. “Wow, 39 years ago,” he said. “I came here then and wondered what all the hoopla was about. Then Codex won, and I found out.”
Just like this year’s Derby, in which Maximum Security was disqualified from first to 17th for interference, the 1980 Preakness sparked bitter controversy. According to the chart’s footnotes, Angel Cordero Jr., on Codex, “looked back entering the stretch and angled extremely wide, intimidating and lightly brushing Genuine Risk.”
An objection by jockey Jacinto Vasquez was not allowed. Genuine Risk was the first filly to win the Derby since 1915, and Cordero was vilified with the headline “No Way to Treat a Lady.” That was Lukas’ wild introduction to the Triple Crown, and he’s been a fixture ever since.
Bob Baffert has won the Preakness seven times, but no one has run more horses in it than Lukas has. Market King, who finished 12th on Saturday, was his 44th starter and Lukas calls Baltimore “the best-kept secret in racing.” Although Pimlico’s appearance and infrastructure are in sad shape, Lukas rates the Maryland Jockey Club’s hospitality as second to none.
"Pimlico takes really good care of everybody, including the grooms, and there’s nothing like the camaraderie here,” Lukas said. “All the trainers are in the same barn, and we insult each other and have fun. Bob and I will get together and he’ll insult me. We’re pretty good friends.
"He’s the best trainer in the country, and maybe in the world.”
Lukas, a winner of 14 Triple Crown events, is among the most influential trainers in history, and he was Baffert’s idol while growing up. Two-time Derby winner Todd Pletcher also reveres Lukas, who calls his former assistant “my adopted son.”
Baffert saluted Lukas after arriving at Pimlico late Thursday afternoon.
"There can’t be a Preakness without Wayne,” Baffert said. “He’s all in. I’ve looked up to him since I was in the quarter horse business [in the 1980s]. Wayne changed the quarter horse business, he changed the thoroughbred business. He could have been a success at anything.”
While in his 20s, Lukas coached high school basketball in his native Wisconsin. That was back in the days of Vince Lombardi’s Packers dynasty. In a 2002 story in the Chicago Tribune, Lukas spoke of becoming a Lombardi disciple.
"I’d drive 150 miles to hear Vince speak,” he told the Tribune. “I bought into everything he said – the work ethic, what it takes to be No. 1, the whole nine yards. He was my role model. He’s still my role model.”
Lukas formed lasting friendships with championship coaches Bill Parcells and Bob Knight. Baffert joked Thursday that maybe Lukas took the wrong path.
"Wayne should have stayed with coaching,” Baffert said. “He could have made more money.”