Aside from his success, trainer D. Wayne Lukas is well known… (Mark Cornelison, MCT )
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Standing outside of his barn at Churchill Downs, leaning against a temporary fence that seems more invitation that blockade, D. Wayne Lukas is as much a Kentucky Derby fixture as spilled bourbon and bad bets.
The Derby takes thousands of horses in their 3-year-old years and whittles them down to a field of 20 through a series of races run across the country, and no trainer has been there at the end more often than Lukas. His two starters entered in Saturday's race, 30-1 Oxbow and 20-1 Will Take Charge, would be his 46th and 47th. Lukas, 77, is tied with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Triple Crown wins of all time with 13.
But he has not won a Kentucky Derby since 1999, with Charismatic. His last Triple Crown victory came when Commendable took the Belmont Stakes in 2000.
He claimed Thursday that 35 of the horses he entered in the Derby were pushed into the race by owners, against his advice, and didn't have a chance to win.
And of course he also said that this year's pair weren't included in that pack.
"They began showing me in February that they could fit this race," he said.
Will Take Charge won the Rebel at Oaklawn Park by a head over Oxbow in March and hasn't raced since. Lukas can sound as confident as any trainer anywhere when he wants to, but he is still unsure of how his strategy for Will Take Charge, with Jon Cort riding and starting from the No. 17 post, will play out.
"I thought it would be better to let him grow into himself, maybe use some of that nutrition to go into developing his body strength," Lukas said. "I don't know if I can pull this off."
Oxbow hasn't won since January and was fifth in the Arkansas Derby.
The colt owned by historic Calument Farm will start from the No. 2 post under hall of fame jockey Gary Stevens, who at 50 made a comeback in January after eight years away.
Veteran jockeys or not, Lukas knows the race will be unpredictable. Both of his horses should be near the front early, which has so often been the case with his Derby runners.
"As trainers we'll tell [the jockey] what we'd like to do," he said, setting up a line that will forever be attached to his name. "But people have opinions and horses have the facts.
"What will happen is that they'll do pretty much what they're trained to do, what they've done. Usually the NCAA championship or the Super Bowl is decided by a team that does what it's done well all season."
A win would make Lukas the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, passing Charlie Whittingham (76). It could also rejuvenate a stable that has been in steady decline — albeit from heights few have ever reached. Lukas had 850 starters and more than $10 million in earnings in 2000. Last year, he earned less than $2.5 million with 285 starts.
Not that the lag appears to weigh on Lukas, who insists he's given no thought of trotting away from training.
"I don't know how many more of these I have guys," he said, as fans gathered around a pack of reporters asking him questions. "Might only do this till I'm 90."
Lukas spent nearly a decade teaching and coaching high school basketball, then another decade racing quarter horses. His success with thoroughbreds came quickly and was unprecedented: he became the first trainer to earn more than $100 million in earnings, leading the nation in that category in 14 different years.
He's at least as well known for his cowboy hat paired with impeccable dress. And the jokes.
On his Derby record of four wins so far, he said: "Four out of 45, that's not a good number if you're a doctor."
Thursday, he rode his pony a few hundred yards to the media center where television and radio reporters conduct interviews. Hundreds of fans turned to point at one of the few men who always seems to be here, in contention, the first week of May.
One fan, Ed Cunningham, from outside of Louisville, made a point of trailing after Lukas for part of the morning.
"Obviously he was as big a guy as there ever was," Cunningham said. "But then you see him like this, and he's the epitome of what you think of when you think of a horse trainer. He's bigger than it all, but he's somehow ground down in the dirt, too.
"He's why you bother following this thing."