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The Odds-On Favorite

Legendary horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas Brings His Talent to Oaklawn

In the world of horse racing, there are some horses that have earned such a spot in history that even non-racing fans recognize their monikers: Seabiscuit, Secretariat, and Man O’ War are just a few.

D. Wayne Lukas heads with his staff to exercise some of the horses in his care at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

When it comes to humans in that industry, though, there is easily one name that stands out above the rest, and that is D. Wayne Lukas. In fact, you might call him the ultimate superstar of horse racing.

The famous horse trainer, who has begun training and racing at Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park just in time for its 105th racing season, has won more money than any other trainer in history, with earnings of more than $251.6 million as of this printing. And at 73, he’s “not even considering” retiring anytime soon — though his stable size has been smaller the last several years following the deaths of two of his biggest owner-clients, W.T. Young of Kentucky’s Overbrook Farm and Bob Lewis of California.

Even though his stable at Oaklawn houses just 40 horses this year — in past years he’s trained as many as 200 horses at once — Lukas is neither giving up nor slowing down. To hear him tell it, he’s just narrowing his focus, and being as selective as ever about what horses he spends his time with, and which owners he trains horses for. (He says he won’t train for anyone he doesn’t like, and all his clients end up being friends.)

“I want to keep racing forever,” he told me during a recent interview at his Oaklawn stable. “I enjoy it — it’s demanding mentally but not so much physically. It’s never felt like a job.”

Whether it’s felt like one or not, it is his job; it is his entire life. It has been his entire life since 1978, when he switched from training quarter horses to thoroughbreds. (He’d left coaching basketball in 1967 to pursue his summer hobby of training quarter horses full-time. And it didn’t take long for him to find success, winning 73 races in 1970.)

Lukas and his barn cat Sally, in the office of his stable at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. [Photo by Kristal Kuykendall]

He gets up every day at 3:30 a.m., works 17 to 18 hours each day, and has missed only four days in the last 16 years, he says. It interferes with having a social life, Lukas adds, but he has a dog and an old-fashioned barn cat named Sally to keep him company during the few hours of the day that he isn’t working. And he has several favorite restaurants around Hot Springs, not the least of which is the local Waffle House. (He stops there occasionally for “some eggs” and is always surprised when some other patron quietly picks up his tab, recognizing the silver hair and white cowboy hat that has become Lukas’ trademark around town.)

But most of the time, Lukas isn’t going out to eat or anywhere else. Most of the time, he’s at his Oaklawn stables training his horses, who he compares to humans.

“One thing that commonly gets overlooked is having the horses right mentally. Most young trainers get caught up in the physical traits,” he explains. “But happy horses, like happy people, work well. Some get caught up in the conditioning of the horse. There’s a fine line between physical fitness and stale-ness, human or horse. Most people don’t realize that.”

Lukas, who employs 52 people, is a bit of an authoritarian — he refers to himself as the dictator — who takes over after allowing his staff five minutes of democracy each morning; his leadership style is “disciplinarian” (he is also a former basketball coach). He preaches discipline and practices it, too.

His stable, sitting underneath his flag and the American flag, is the nicest at Oaklawn, and is even landscaped on its perimeter. It is kept meticulously clean — not one flower is out of place, not one corner is left unswept — and is enclosed in the winter months with thick, white plastic to help keep the horses warm.

“That discipline of keeping the barn looking well carries over to the grooming of the horses, and the training of them,” Lukas explained. “Discipline is discipline.”

He sounds like a coach because, really, he still is one. Except now he’s coaching humans as well as horses in the game of racing, a former assistant trainer told me.

“He is a great coach and a great horseman, and a great teacher for all of us who worked under him,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, a Lexington, Kentucky native who worked under Lukas from 1985 to 1992. “Wayne always answered every question we had about anything, and he helped teach us about the racing industry. Most of our questions were difficult, and he always had an answer. It was never ‘That’s the way my father did it’ or whatever because he was self-taught. He always explained everything very well.”

One of Lukas’ tricks, McLaughlin said, is staying organized. He has about a dozen clipboards hanging on his office walls, and each one reveals important details — who is exercising that day, whether they are galloping or just walking, who is receiving medical treatments and when, and so forth — about his horses and his operations at the glance of an eye. And none of the clipboard papers are likely to have any White-Out or other forms of corrections on them — Lukas is a meticulous perfectionist and will wait until he’s positive about something before he writes anything down. That way he doesn’t have to go back and fix anything later (it drives him nuts to “mess up” the page with corrections, McLaughlin said, laughing).

The silver-tongued, silver-haired Lukas hasn’t always trained at Oaklawn. He calls Oaklawn a “great program to develop horses for the Preakness or the Belmont,” which, along with the Kentucky Derby, are the three biggest races in the business and make up the coveted Triple Crown of racing. “

We were here in the mid-80s, but we didn’t come back for awhile. Then we came back three or four years ago, and we will continue to be a fixture here from now on,” he said. “We have a certain group of horses in the barn, 3-year-olds, that are good for this program at Oaklawn. And the surface is similar to Churchill Downs, which is our main state meet.”

Speaking of Churchill Downs, that’s where most of Lukas’ staff comes from.

“We have no local people. We’ve worked with them, taught them, and screened them,” he says of his employees from Louisville, Kentucky. Many of his assistants, over the years, have gone on to make names for themselves in the world of training, and they include Todd Pletcher, Mark Hennig, Bobby Barnett, Randy Bradshaw, and Dallas Stewart.

Lukas’ son, Jeff, was an assistant trainer under his father until a bad accident in 1993 involving the eventual champion Tabasco Cat. The horse broke loose, and when Jeff tried to stop him, the excited animal slammed into Jeff with such force that it fractured his skull. Jeff was in a coma for weeks, and his recovery took years, the elder Lukas said. Jeff retired from the business after the accident, for which the horse was not punished, on his father’s wishes.

Lukas’ assistants are required to check in with him very early in the morning, at mid-day, and again in the evening, because he doesn’t like surprises — he likes to know what’s going on each day with every horse under his charge.

“He is a very early riser,” McLaughlin recalled. “My first day on the job, he told me to meet him at the donut shop at 4 a.m., and I thought ‘What the heck are we going to do at 4 a.m.? It’s pitch black dark!’ But it was 4 a.m. for the next seven years of my life.” They would go to the barn and soon start to walk the horses, check their legs, see how they had eaten. Lukas would go over his clipboards, and he would check the track condition and the weather.

One morning a few months after he’d started working for Lukas, McLaughlin overslept because his electricity — and his alarm — had gone off during the night. “So I was late that morning, and he didn’t have anything to say, but the look he gave me and the way I knew he wasn’t happy was enough,” said McLaughlin, who is currently training 60 horses and racing at Gulfstream Park in Florida. “So I went out and bought two more alarm clocks so I had three of them. You just wanted to make him happy.”

One thing that makes Lukas happy, still today, is seeing his former assistants’ success, he said. McLaughlin, for example, trained the 2006 Horse of the Year, Invasor — an industry nod to his skills, indeed. Lukas has trained three Horses of the Year: Charismatic in 1999, Criminal Type in 1990, and Lady’s Secret in 1986. In addition, Lukas been named the nation’s top trainer with the Eclipse Award four times, in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1994.

Lukas’ list of awards fills an entire page in the encyclopedia. But probably the most notable record he’s set has been racking up 13 victories in Triple Crown races, tying with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most by any trainer in history. That includes four Kentucky Derby wins, four Belmont Stakes wins, and five Preakness Stakes wins by Lukas horses. In 1995, he became the only trainer ever to win all three Triple Crown races in one year with different horses, and in 1999, he was enshrined in thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. Now he is the only person on the planet to hold that honor and be in the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted a few years ago.

How has he gotten this far and earned so many wins on the track?

By doing things his way.

He is known for revolutionizing horse travel, as he, years ago, began flying his horses across the country to participate in races they had a good chance of winning. At the time, such a method was almost unheard of, and soon the familiar quote “D. Wayne off the plane” — heard at tracks across the nation — meant other trainers and owners better watch out.

Other things he’s done are unorthodox as well. For example, a few years ago, he wanted his horses working out on the track at Churchill Downs before the crowd of other horses came out, so he started them exercising so early in the morning that it was still completely dark out.

One of Lukas’ horses gets a workout at Oaklawn

The exercise riders wore helmets with blinking, colored lights, presumably so the clocker, who watches from the press box far above and keeps the official workout times, could tell the horses apart, one witness told me. “It was kind of hysterical to watch,” recalled Alicia Wincze, horse racing writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

At his stables, he makes his employees — especially his assistant trainers — practice their penmanship so he can read their handwriting. He insists that they use proper grammar when speaking, and once, when an assistant trainer called to tell him of a big win, saying, “We done good, boss, we done good,” Lukas scolded him for his poor language.

He’s certainly a strict boss, yet he isn’t the type to lose his cool — as his close friend Bobby Knight has many times on the basketball court. (Lukas says he doesn’t agree with everything his friend has done, but he also defends the former Texas Tech and Indiana coach, saying he is “completely misunderstood.” He also keeps in touch with other friends he made while coaching, including University of Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino and University of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals are a favorite with Lukas.)

Lukas’ roots are in Louisville, Kentucky, and at Churchill Downs, where he built his now-legendary career as a thoroughbred trainer, and where he still has many close friends including UofL Coach Rick Pitino.

Nor is Lukas the type to play the role of the emotional, fist-pumping trainer loudly cheering his horse on to the finish line. Once he that said if he gets really excited about a race, he might throw his program, but that’s about it.

He talks a lot about the mental state of a horse, and how it’s important to challenge the horse while still allowing him opportunities to shine.

“A horse’s mental state is, to me, three-to-one more important than his physical state. That’s true in all athletic performance, really, equine or human,” Lukas told the Harvard Business Review in 2004. “Horses are a lot more delicate and sensitive than you can imagine. One of the things we always tell our people is, ‘Never take the try out of the horse.’ If he loses the try, the joy of participating and competing, then you’re in trouble. Yet you’ve still got to bear down on him to the point where he’s fit enough to go a mile and a quarter. So therein lies the problem.”

A problem, perhaps, but it’s one Lukas has found the solution to a number of times: 4,511 times as of February 5, 2009, according to Equibase, the industry’s leading statistics keeper. That’s how many wins Lukas has accumulated, the eighth most in the industry’s history. The thing is, though, that “problem” changes with each and every animal that races — because no two horses are alike.

“There is no how-to book in my sport, it’s all trial-and-error learning on the job,” he explained. “So experience is paramount in this business, it’s absolutely the bottom line.”

Also paramount is time.

“We’ll run a horse on Saturday, knowing he’ll be back in two to three weeks and you have to get him ready. Time just flies by,” Lukas said. “You always wish you had more time to get them ready.”

This year, Lukas is using his time to rebuild his stable of fledgling champions. His human talent for spotting horse talent — particularly in young, as-yet-unknown horses — has always been instrumental in helping him win. Lately he’s relying on those skills again, purchasing dozens of top-quality yearlings with two new strategic partners in order to further develop his stables and increase his chances of a return to the top of his game.

Meanwhile, he continues to train and race the three-year-olds under his wing at Oaklawn. At press time, he was preparing to race either (or both, one never knows with Lukas till the last minute) Buzzin and Dreamin or Flying Private in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, which is a key Kentucky Derby prep race.

So although he isn’t training — or touting — any horses this year that are obvious favorites for Triple Crown races, it’s far, far too soon to count him out, industry observers will tell you. And Lukas still has his eye on the ultimate prize: winning the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont and the Preakness to take the Triple Crown.

“It’s the only thing out there I haven’t done,” he says matter-of-factly. “The way to win it is you have to have a (promising) foal born in a year when the rest of the class is a little bit weak.”

So there’s one last question for the superstar of racing: With all the competition among the nation’s race tracks to bring in the best horses and the best trainers, how did Oaklawn, and Arkansas, garner such a gem as D. Wayne Lukas?

“It’s the people. Racing has become callous (in some places), but there is still a passion for it in places like Saratoga, Keeneland, and here,” he said. “People here embrace racing; the whole community steps up and supports it. Oaklawn probably has the best attendance of any track its size in the country.

“Once I was kidding some people who were here visiting from New York, and I said, ‘Now when the horses turn for home, you will hear a loud roar, and I know you’re not used to that.’ It’s the fans at Oaklawn, cheering on their horses. Yeah, I really like the people here.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2009 edition of Celebrate Arkansas magazine. Click here to view the PDF of the magazine pages as they initially appeared. Photos by Oaklawn photographer Jeff Coady except where otherwise noted.