He has captured four Kentucky Derbies, three consecutive Belmont Stakes, 18 Breeders’ Cup contests and is the only trainer to be a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame (1999) and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame (2007). Yet D. Wayne Lukas has often been disparaged instead of lauded.
He’s been accused of running unsound horses and derided for his impeccable attire, private jet and “corporate” method of training. Lukas’ critics, however, cannot deny that his philosophy radically altered the sport and is one of the primary reasons he is one of the most successful conditioners of all time.
“I have been criticized by certain people in the industry who don’t always agree with what we do,” said Lukas during his Hall of Fame induction speech on August 10, 1999.”But it’s my nature to push the envelope every time. If you want a coach who wants to walk the ball up the court, you better get another guy, because we’re going to run and press all the time”.
He does have his fans.
“He’s an arrogant man,” John Nerud, who gave Lukas the 1980 Preakness victor Codex to train told Joe Drape in 1999. “He’s got his opinions, and they come out quick. He wants you to hear them and listen to them. But I believe he has earned that right for all he’s done for the game”.
Born on September 2, 1935 in Antigo, Wisconsin, basketball and horses have always been major components of Darrell Wayne Lukas’ life. As a youngster, he raced his pony at the local fairgrounds, and, while earning a master’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin, he trained and raced horses at Park Jefferson Racetrack in South Dakota.
For two years, Lukas was the assistant basketball coach at University of Wisconsin, before he became a teacher. He then coached high school basketball for nine years before trying his hand at Quarter Horse training in 1968.
Lukas often uses basketball analogies and feels his racing accomplishments can, in part, be credited to his basketball background.
“I think that I brought some of the principle and organization (from basketball) to racing”, Lukas said. “Thoroughbred racing is so deep in tradition that it’s very reluctant to change and you find very little innovative thinking because of that. People do it the same way all the time and fall into a pattern of a hand-me-down learning experience. That’s just the way it’s evolved. So coming from coaching, I thought we had to get organized and we did it much like the better coaches do, as a game plan or practice plan that you follow every day.
“Once you bring regimentation or organization to a program, you must also bring a lot of discipline”, he continued, “We found through discipline you get a certain amount of excellence and also that most people in this industry would hire a person and then not try to develop them. We found in order to get better, win more or raise the bar in our barn we had to develop those people in the trenches doing the one-on-one work with the horse. We hired them, taught them and developed them in our mold, much like a team.”
Lukas, the first trainer to break the $100 million and $200 million marks in earnings, acknowledges he resembles Joseph Stalin rather than Thomas Jefferson.
“We have five minutes of democracy in the morning and that’s it, then the president takes over”, he explained. “I let my assistant trainers express themselves and I listen to what they have to say but, from that hour on, they don’t have a vote. I make the decisions because ultimately, the buck stops with me. Our clientele is mine and they have my phone number. You don’t hear loud noises or radios in our barns and I’m the only one that’s allowed to curse. When it gets to that point, everyone tries to dive under the straw because they know what’s coming”.
One of his former employees agrees with that assessment.
“The stalls can be perfect, but if a saddle pony doesn’t look right or the pony tack isn’t gleaming, he’ll get all over you”, said Randy Bradshaw, Lukas’ former California-based assistant.
So what criteria does the “Coach” require for his employees?
“Hiring is an intuitive thing”, Lukas said. “First impressions are big and I’ve never hired an assistant trainer from a resume. I only hire people that are standing in front of me that I can get a feel for. I think it’s probably as important to judge a person as it is to judge a yearling at a sale”.
Another essential element of Lukas’ program is a zest for work.
“I enjoy this profession so much that I get up at 3:30 a.m., seven days a week, no matter where I am or what I’m doing”, he said. “I think If four Kentucky Derbies were fun and great, then five much be even better. We don’t have any secret but I always say we do the common things uncommonly well, and what we bring to the table is a lot of energy and enthusiasm. All successful people have energy, enthusiasm and intensity. If you don’t have those three things at some point, it will do you in because those are the three things that carry you”.
Lukas definitely possesses those traits.
“The thing about Wayne is he has energy and goals”, Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger, who won the 1990 Kentucky Derby with Unbridled and the 2007 edition with Street Sense, told Joe Drape in 1999, “When he’s on top he builds; when he’s on the bottom he builds”.
Not many trainers can say they were interviewed for the Harvard Business Review or that they speak to corporate America, but then again Lukas isn’t quite like his colleagues. “I’ve been doing it for about eight, nine, ten years and it just kind of evolved”, he said. “I’ve spoken at the Microsoft National Convention, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, for Visa, General Electric twice, American Express, Pillsbury, and even Mary Kay Cosmetics, believe it or not. I enjoy it because I think I teach people that are not even remotely connected to racing. I’m sure most people think, ‘What will this horse trainer have to say to us?’ I just express myself on what I believe and it all falls together. I don’t even take a note and I speak for about 55 minutes”.
Lukas has received raved reviews.
“The way D. Wayne Lukas speaks to a group is the same as he leads his life…informative and straight to the point”, Brereton Jones, the former Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky said. “When this is combined with the right mix of humor and insight, he delivers a speech way worth the price of admission”.
Another project the four time Eclipse Award winning conditioner is involved with is the Thoroughbred Legends Racing Fund. Lukas, in conjunction with fellow Hall of Famer, Nick Zito, and future Hall of Famer, Bob Baffert, will select young horses from the sales and train them for an investment group. The trio announced their new venture on June 9, two days before Zito’s De’Tara upset Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes.
“The tax advantages in racing are excellent, but it is considered by most investment groups as a high risk industry, and it is if you would go out and do it on your own”, Lukas said. “But if you take the statistics of Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Nick Zito and run them over the Classics and the best races in the country, we’ve won 82 percent of them in the last two decades. That’s what investors want: cold, hard numbers and not the romance.
“If you look at what was syndicated and sold in our industry over the last twenty years it comes to over 500 million dollars”, he continued. “So we thought by combining, we could provide investors with a cross-section of abilities, personalities and a chance to cover a broad section of the industry. Most large investor groups, people that are going to put up $5 to $10 million, just want to see a good return. Statistically, we can guarantee that, and it’s moving along in pretty good shape now. We are all good friends and we have a lot of the same philosophies, like winning, and I think it’s hard to deny the actual success ratio”.
At the August Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling auction, Legends Racing started with a bang, as the group was the second largest spender. For $3,275,000, the organization purchased nine yearlings and was the under-bidder on a Storm Car-Totemic colt that was the $1.5 million sale topper.
Even though potential champions may soon be entering Lukas’ shedrow, some of his past pupils remain in his thoughts. He’s trained 23 Quarter Horse Champions and three Horses of the Year, so it’s tough for him to narrow down his favorites.
“It’s kind of like the girl you are dancing with”, he said. “She’s the apple of your eye at the time. Each of the horses has a soft spot with me and they have been instrumental to my career, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones that brought me closer to my clientele. For example, Cat Thief wasn’t the best horse I trained by a long shot, but for him to win the Classic and to go through that experience with Bill Young, who I was so fond of, it made him special.
“I’ve won four Derbies and the only time I broke down and openly wept was when Grindstone won and I was standing there waiting for Bill to joins us in the Winners’ Circle”, Lukas continued. “Charismatic was another one, because it was for Bob Lewis. Each one of these horses did something to cement a beautiful friendship. Those are the horses that mean the most to me and they are the ones you have the fondest memories of”.
He refuses to work with people he doesn’t personally like.
“I train for some super, super people like Mary Lou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson”, Lukas said. “They are salt of the earth people. I don’t care if someone has Secretariat, I’m not going to do it because when I see them coming down the shed now I have to genuinely like them”.
In a career that has spanned more than four decades and brought a number of blessings, Lukas feels his greatest feat is all the assistant trainers his tutelage has produced. These include four-time Eclipse Award winner, Todd Pletcher, Classic winning trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, 2008 Grade 2, Jim Dandy, and 2006 Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks victor Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig, and Randy Bradshaw.
“I never thought my legacy would be developing these young men, but it probably will be”, he said. “When we first came along out of the Quarter Horse industry a lot of people said, ‘He has a corporate mentality, there’s no horsemanship.’ Now with 14 or 15 very successful horseman that came through our program and are out there making waves on their own, I think those same people are now saying, ‘There much have been something there, because there are too many people doing too well that came out of that program’. Statistically, we have some great things to lean on, but we took some people that couldn’t tie their own tie and to see them now, as successful and professional as they are, is a source of great pride for me.”
So what else remains for Lukas to conquer?
“We’ve won the Triple Crown, but we took a couple horses to do it”, he said. “I think that’s the only one that’s hanging out there. I’d like to get that out of the way”.