The king of the quarter horse trainers was heading for the dusty little bush track in Arizona’s mountains, about 30 miles from Bill Baffert’s cattle ranch. Bill’s teenaged son was pumped when he saw D. Wayne Lukas roll into the Sonoita Fairgrounds.
“I remember I was 15, 16 years old when Wayne ran some quarter horses at Sonoita,” Bob Baffert said. “That’s where I learned about racing and how my dad and I got involved. I’ll never forget when he came in with his fancy trailer. Man, there’s Wayne Lukas.
“He was huge then, and he’s always set the bar.”
Half a century later, Baffert and his idol from way back when will compete against each other in Saturday’s Preakness at Pimlico. Each has won the second 3-year-old classic six times, one off the record of 19th century trainer R.W. Walden. Baffert will send out heavily favored Justify, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner. Lukas will saddle longshots Bravazo and Sporting Chance.
Justify can give Baffert his 14th victory in a Triple Crown race, which would tie Lukas’ record. On a conference call, Baffert was asked about that historic possibility. His reaction was as revealing as “no comment” can get.
“Let me stop you right there,” Baffert said, sounding quite agitated. “Let me stop you right there. I don’t even think about stuff like that right now. I don’t want to talk to you about this.
“I don’t want to be jinxing it now. We just want to get to the Preakness and have that horse run. I never think about breaking records or anything like that. We live for the moment, and the moment is this race.
“I’ve got a little Bill Belichick in me. I’m like, ‘On to Baltimore.’”
As Stevie Wonder sang, “Superstition ain’t the way.”
On Derby Day, Baffert admitted he got the fear when he saw his wife, Jill, was wearing a green dress. Years ago, someone told him that green is bad luck in racing. Not this time, because Justify cruised by 2½ lengths.
Like all super achievers, Baffert is hypercompetitive and can be arrogant, but when it comes to Lukas, his attitude borders on reverence.
“Wayne Lukas, he is legendary,” Baffert said. “He changed quarter horse racing and opened up the doors for us quarter horse guys to try thoroughbred racing. He changed thoroughbred racing, too. Everywhere he goes, he changes it. In quarter horses I couldn’t get to his level, and it’s the same with thoroughbreds. He’s an icon and he’s the man. To me, he’s still above me and always will be.”
In 1971, Baffert graduated high school and asked his hero for a job. Sorry, young fella.
“He did, but I didn’t need anybody at that point,” Lukas said. “But wouldn’t that have been something if he got the job? Now, sometimes I’m saddling horses for him and I’m sort of his assistant.”
At 82, Lukas still gets up at 3:30 every morning, way too early for Baffert. “I tell him I’m sure glad you turned me down, because you’d be taking all the credit for this,’’ Baffert said. “But he probably would have fired me after two weeks, because he works too hard.”
Baffert said his father was his racing mentor and that he learned “by trial and error, mostly error.” He compared his equine education to figuring out how to play the guitar by ear. After years of practice, he became a virtuoso.
Before the Derby, there was endless buzz about how Apollo in 1882 was its last winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. Lukas said if anyone could reverse that curse, it was Baffert.
“Bob is an excellent horseman. He gets nice horses and he knows what to do with them,” Lukas said. “I have developed a deep friendship with him, and he’s the heir apparent to all these records.
“Someone asked me about the 14 Triple Crown wins. I mean, Bob is going to roll right past that.”
Just don’t mention it to him until after it happens.