Hall of fame trainer Lukas backs Pletcher in Preak­ness

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DAVID GINS­BURG BAL­TI­MORE —

There once was a time when hall of fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would feel ab­so­lutely aw­ful about not hav­ing a horse in the Preak­ness.

Stand­ing out­side the stakes barn at Pim­lico Race Course on Thurs­day, his sig­na­ture cow­boy hat planted squarely on his head, the six­time Preak­ness win­ner seemed gen­uinely com­fort­able with the sit­u­a­tion.

“I’d be aw­ful self­ish if I was kick­ing the dirt and say­ing, ‘Damn, I don’t have one,’ as good as this place has been to me,” Lukas said.

Though he doesn’t have a horse in Satur­day’s race, he does have a friend in it:

For­mer as­sis­tant Todd Pletcher, who will be sad­dling up Ken­tucky Derby win­ner and Triple Crown hope­ful Al­ways Dream­ing.

“I can rel­ish that and en­joy that, too,” Lukas said.

That’s what hap­pened at Churchill Downs, when Lukas had no en­trant but was over­come with joy while watch­ing Al­ways Dream­ing ap­proach the fin­ish line.

“I went crazy when they were at the 5/8 pole,” Lukas said. “I was bang­ing and tip­ping over chairs. My wife said, ‘I’ve never seen you that ex­cited,’ and I said, ‘That’s our guy.’”

Pletcher worked un­der Lukas for well over half a decade be­fore go­ing out on his own in the win­ter of 1995.

“We had the strong­est sta­ble in the world, prob­a­bly, and to leave a se­cure as­sis­tant job was a tough de­ci­sion to make — and an in­tim­i­dat­ing one,” Pletcher re­called.

“I didn’t re­ally know what to ex­pect. I was just hop­ing to ac­cu­mu­late enough horses to get go­ing and es­tab­lish a rep­u­ta­tion.”

Turns out, Lukas and Pletcher are as suc­cess­ful in­di­vid­u­ally as they were as a team.

Lukas, 81, has won 14 Triple Crown races and owns 20 vic­to­ries in the Breeder’s Cup.

Pletcher has cap­tured the Eclipse Award seven times as Trainer of the Year, won the Ken­tucky Derby twice and made mil­lions of dol­lars.

“He’s cre­ated his own legacy and made some changes that he thought were right,” Lukas ob­served.

“I see a lot of our or­ga­ni­za­tion in the way he runs his barn. It’s pretty ob­vi­ous he had that dis­ci­pline.”

Lukas knows his hard-work­ing and suc­cess-driven pro­tege was bound to do well re­gard­less of his school­ing.

“I don’t want to take a lot of credit for his ca­reer, frankly,” Lukas in­sisted.

“I think he’s his own per­son and he was go­ing to be good if he never met me.

“And he prob­a­bly helped me as much as I helped him.” Pletcher isn’t so sure. “If you work for some­one for seven years, you cer­tainly learn a lot of things from him,” the 49-year-old said.

“I al­ways thought one of his many strengths was when he got a horse in form, his abil­ity to main­tain them in form for a long time.”

Lukas this week is run­ning three- year-old Aqua­ma­rine in the $200,000 Chick Lang and three­year-old filly My Sweet Stella in the Hill­top on grass.

Both are owned by Zayat Sta­bles, which two years ago won the Preak­ness with Triple Crown win­ner Amer­i­can Pharoah.

Though he’s well past re­tire­ment age, Lukas re­mains ac­tive in the sport and fully ex­pects to mount a horse in the 2018 Preak­ness.

Lukas and Pletcher re­main close friends and won’t hes­i­tate to call upon one an­other for ad­vice. If Lukas could im­press upon Pletcher just one thing, it would be to savour the mo­ment and take it all in.

“I don’t think he’s en­joy­ing it as much as he should,” Lukas said. “That was one of the things I re­gret­ted through my ca­reer. There were some week­ends when we won three or four Grade 1s and I would say, ‘What are we go­ing to do next week?’”

Lukas re­calls win­ning a Preak­ness and then driv­ing to a fast-food joint in Bal­ti­more, where he ate chicken while sit­ting alone.

“There were a cou­ple of young guys there say­ing, ‘That looks like the guy who won the Preak­ness,’” Lukas said. “Pretty soon they came over and we’re all hav­ing chicken to­gether.”

GARRY JONES, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jockey John Ve­lazquez puts Al­ways Dream­ing through a work­out at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., last month. Al­ways Dream­ing is trained by Todd Pletcher, who will be sad­dling the Ken­tucky Derby win­ner and Triple Crown hope­ful on Satur­day.

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