Jeff Lukas was the relentless taskmaster for his father, D. Wayne Lukas, as they dominated thoroughbred racing in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then a headstrong 2-year-old colt named Tabasco Cat ran into Jeff on Santa Anita’s backstretch on the morning of Dec. 15, 1993, and the brilliant trainer’s life never was the same.
He nearly died of brain injuries that affected his vision and memory, and they led to divorce and the loss of his career. Jeff Lukas, 58, died Wednesday in Atoka, Oklahoma, where he had worked for a bank since 2007. Cause of death apparently was of a heart attack, according to reports.
Among those he mentored is Todd Pletcher, who surpassed Jeff’s father as the all-time money leader. Other prominent horsemen who came up under Jeff are Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart and Mark Hennig.
“Jeff was the glue,” Pletcher told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden in 2013. “Wayne was the boss, but as far as the inner workings of the racing operation, Jeff was the backbone, no doubt about it.” On Thursday, Layden tweeted that Jeff “was one of the bravest people I ever met.”
The accident took away Lukas’ manic intensity but made him more sensitive to others and to the big picture. As he told Layden: “I have physical limitations I’m always going to have . . . [but] I’m fortunate I’m sitting here talking to you. And I’m proud I stayed determined, focused and worked my way back to be here.”
After Tabasco Cat nearly killed his only child, D. Wayne Lukas trained him to win the 1994 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, among the 80-year-old Hall of Famer’s record 14 victories in Triple Crown races. Jeff Lukas was instrumental in developing their first Kentucky Derby winner, the filly Winning Colors, along with Horses of the Year Lady’s Secret (1986) and Criminal Type (1990). For 10 consecutive years, from 1983-92, D. Wayne Lukas led the nation in earnings. Although he was the trainer of record, he gave Jeff much of the credit.
The Lukases revolutionized training in the 1980s by shipping horses around the country to win stakes in California, Florida, Kentucky and New York. Attention to detail was paramount in controlling all the moving parts, and Jeff drove his people hard. As McLaughlin said, “You didn’t want to be late.”
“Jeff was the sharpest and most dedicated trainer I’ve ever met,” Pletcher tweeted. “His impact on my life and career, as well as on many others in the Lukas organization, is immeasurable. We will miss him greatly.”
He also is survived by his mother, Janet; a son, Brady, and daughter, Kelly. Funeral arrangements are at Brown’s Funeral Home, Atoka.