Haskin: Lukas and Stevens' Long Journey Together

Wayne Lukas knew he had pulled a fast one on his opponents and on the bettors. The Hall of Fame trainer had just sprung an 18-1 upset in the 2000 Belmont Stakes with Commendable, who was coming off a dreadful 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Despite the son of Gone West floundering through six straight out-of-the-money performances at four different racetracks at five different distances, Lukas refused to give up on the colt, whom he had purchased for Bob and Beverly Lewis for $575,000.    

Not only did Commendable have no form to back him up, Lukas was attempting something that had never been done before – win the Belmont Stakes straight from the Kentucky Derby.

“Wayne, are you sure you want to do this,” Bob Lewis asked him after Lukas told him of his intentions. Even Lukas’s wife, Laura, questioned the move. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she asked. “Are you being realistic here?”

But Lukas remained firm in his decision. He discussed the field and strategy with assistant trainer Mike Maker and mapped out his plan of attack. When it was over, Lukas had his 13th classic victory, and in doing so rewrote the book on how to train a horse for the Belmont. After that victory, trainers began to follow suit, resting their horses after the Derby and going straight to the Belmont. What had never been accomplished before now became the blueprint on how to win the Belmont.

Since Commendable’s victory, Empire Maker, Birdstone, Jazil, Summer Bird, and Union Rags all won the Belmont Stakes coming straight out of the Kentucky Derby.

What Lukas didn’t realize then was that his vast operation, which, for 15 years, made Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup victories look routine, would be reduced to a single 40-50-horse stable and that it would take 13 years for his next victory in a Triple Crown race.

How fitting that it should come with a rugged throwback of a colt like Oxbow, who continues to bounce out of race after race like a fresh horse, despite having to overcome bad posts, bad trips, and premature moves? Unlike Commendable’s 18-1 odds, Oxbow was “only” 15-1 in his masterful theft of the Preakness Stakes, one of only two races since last December in which he drew a good post.

Lukas once again had silenced the doubters and proved all those wrong who thought, at age 77, he was washed up.

The year after Commendable’s Belmont Stakes victory, almost to the day, Gary Stevens, his bags packed, left the Belmont Park and headed to his car following his victory in the Belmont aboard Point Given. The cheers, the smiles, and the accolades were behind him, and all that remained were nagging thoughts of what might have been. Although he had just ridden Point Given to one of the most dominating victories in the history of the Belmont, following the colt’s impressive win the Preakness, there was a hint of sadness on his face and in his voice. Stevens knew a Triple Crown sweep had been squandered with Point Given’s inexplicable fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. There was enough self blame to go around for everyone connected with the horse. And to this day, no one can provide a single concrete reason for Point Given’s Derby performance

“It’s going to be disappointing forever, knowing that racing was probably deprived of a Triple Crown winner,” Stevens said as he left the track that evening. “You have to understand, the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate for (owner Prince Ahmed Salman), and I really wanted it for him.”

Perhaps Stevens would have relished the moment and appreciated the victory more had he known, like Lukas, it would be his last victory in a Triple Crown race in 12 years.

During those dozen years, Stevens’ life was a whirlwind of conflicting emotions and a continuous attempt at self-discovery. He struggled for several years, but eventually lost his battle with pain and ventured into whatever role in racing he could find. He was involved in a horrific spill at Arlington Park that could easily have cost him his life, but he made an amazing comeback from that near-tragic incident. He lived with extreme pain in his knees before finally retiring in 2005. Over the years he briefly trained horses, was racing manager for Prince Ahmed’s The Thoroughbred Corp, was an advisor to IEAH Stables, worked as a TV analyst for several networks, and even acted in movies and television, getting excellent reviews for his roles in the film “Seabiscuit” and the short-lived TV series “Luck,” in which he played veteran washed-up jockey Ronnie Jenkins, who had turned to alcohol following a bad spill.

Following Luck’s cancellation, Stevens, remarkably, after seven years, decided to come out of retirement, as if continuing his role as Ronnie Jenkins, intent on proving to the world he still could ride with the best of them. To most everyone’s amazement, Stevens returned as strong and as fiercely competitive as he had been back in his glory days of the 1990s. He lost none of his strength and timing and his comeback was an immediate success. His fellow jockeys were amazed he could come back off such a long layoff at the age of 50 and compete at the same high level he had seven years earlier.

Stevens made several attempts to land a Triple Crown horse, but it wasn’t until he was contacted by Lukas that he found the perfect horse to match his style of riding. Give Stevens a tough, tenacious horse with excellent tactical speed who could race effectively on or just off the pace, such as a Silver Charm, In Excess, Farma Way, Bertrando, Serena’s Song, Gentlemen, Silverbulletday, Indian Charlie, General Challenge, and Congaree, and he was back in his comfort zone. His strength and ability to judge pace was second to none.

It was Lukas who helped jump start Stevens’ career 25 years earlier by putting him on his first Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, who also happened to be Lukas’ first Derby winner after 12 attempts, the last 11 finishing out of the money. They would team up again in 1995, winning the Derby and Belmont with Thunder Gulch, who, at 24-1, bailed out Lukas when his favored 3-1 entry of Timber Country and Serena’s Song finished third and 16th, respectively.

Following the Derby, Lukas put Stevens back up on Serena’s Song, who he had ridden early in her career, and the daughter of Rahy proceeded to win seven of her next 10 starts, including a victory over colts in the Haskell Invitational, and five other grade I stakes.

By the end of 1995, Stevens had ridden three Eclipse Award champions for Lukas – Thunder Gulch, Serena’s Song, and Golden Attraction.

But it was Thunder Gulch who held a special place in Stevens’ heart, helping him overcome the sudden death of his close friend Mark Kauffman several days before the Kentucky Derby.

As he crossed the finish line, Stevens stood in the saddle, pointed his finger toward the heavens, and shouted, “This is for you, Mark.” After the race, he wasted no time in calling Kauffman’s wife, Molly, at her home in Mercer Island, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, to tell her Mark was with him all the way.

“What Gary did was so special and so wonderful and so spontaneous, there are no words to describe it,” an emotionally exhausted Molly said later that night. “It made me cry and  it made me happy to know how much Mark was loved. We were extremely touched that Gary took time out to let us know how much he cared, and I truly believe Mark’s spirit was right there with him.”

It just seems Lukas and Stevens have always been there for each other at crucial times in their career, and it would be hard to dismiss fate as the driving force that once again brought them together this year with Oxbow. With the colt’s emotionally charged Preakness victory, each thrust the other back into the spotlight in which they had basked so often years ago. For that brief moment, Lukas no longer was 77; Stevens no longer was 50. They both were back in their prime, lifting the same trophy and commanding the same headlines. Their plaques in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame that were beginning to fade into history, once again shone with the same luster they did the day they were inducted.

Even in the Hall of Fame, they share a common bond. Stevens was inducted in 1997, the same year he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Silver Charm. Lukas was inducted in 1999, the same year he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Charismatic. Both colts were owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis.

Now, so many years later, the bond between Lukas and Stevens has grown even stronger, as each has added to the other’s already extensive list of accomplishments. Lukas, by winning the Preakness, broke “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons’ long-standing record of 13 classic victories, while Stevens became the only jockey other than the great Eddie Arcaro to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont three times each.

Regardless of what Oxbow does in the future, the reuniting of two legends and that one special moment of sheer bliss they shared following the Preakness will remain frozen in time, forever etched in the history books.

All photos by Steve Haskin.


37 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Cassandra.Says

Lukas's need to prove himself was hardly a personal idiosyncrasy.

What saint among us would endure with equanimity the sheer nastiness that was heaped on Lukas's head? I can think of some people who should count themselves lucky that instead of impractical jokes Lukas believed doing well was the best revenge.

In the Golden Years of turf journalism there was no such thing as a slow news day. You could always find someone willing to say something incendiary about Lukas.

26 May 2013 7:48 PM
Bill Two

It really is amazing - the good karma that develops when these two collaborate.  Never say never with these guys.  Great story, Steve.

26 May 2013 8:33 PM
Yagottabelieve

Steve,  

Your writing has been such a pleasure over the years.As you have grown to such prominence and importance over the years we have all shared with your love and knowledge of the sport and become better for it.

This time you have exceeded yourself.You have told the story of this Preakness with just a photograph (Eclipse Award Time????? <s>)

Maybe some of your readers can come up with a title:

eg. "Two old Foxes outside the Chicken Coup"

I bet Lucas and Stevens have at least one of these in their Trophy Rooms.Patrick.

26 May 2013 9:50 PM
Fran Loszynski

The Belmont is going to be something special. You know with all the greatness and veterans in racing no one is going to be a loser in this race  The hearts at the rail and the courage on the track we will not forget this one. What a wonderful account of Gary, Oxbow and Mr.Lukas Steve. I personally would like to thank Mr. Lukas for his devotion to Dublin. A fleet Alex,s first son to run in The Kentucky Derby alongside Back talk Smarty Jones son. It is a devotion to Dublin that added to Alex's legacy. Yes when Mr. Lukas likes a horse he stands with him. A thank you to all the men and women this weekend that gave their lives so we could enjoy our freedom to enjoy our sport - this Memorial Day

26 May 2013 10:45 PM
Paula Higgins

This was a nice article. Although I was hoping for a Triple Crown Champion this year, this was the next best scenario. Good to see two "old timers" win the prize. I was very happy for Gary Stevens especially.

26 May 2013 11:32 PM
Deltalady

The recounting of Point Given's disappointing Derby and later wins of the Preakness and the Belmont reminded me of the YouTube video of Stevens' visit with Point Given in Kentucky.  Through tears, he shoulders the blame and voices the tremendous amount of regret he still has about that Derby loss and losing a chance at a Triple Crown. Stevens said he let Point Given go a little too fast early on. For those who haven't seen it, here is the link at YouTube: http://youtu.be/6eUDQlOlvY0

Whether anyone else blamed him for that ride, he blamed himself, and in that wonderful moment as he's reminiscing with his old friend, choking back the tears, it reveals the kind of man that Gary is -- capable of great feats of glory on the track and yet able to exhibit humility at being all too human.

Thanks so much Steve for another wonderful human interest story.  Love him or hate him, Lukas is never boring, always interesting to watch.

27 May 2013 12:23 AM
Lexington Bloodstock

Few people, even profound lovers of the sport, understand the talent, perseverance, and intellect required to rise to the level of a Wayne Lukas or a Gary Stevens.  

It is a profoundly difficult task where luck is almost insignificant.  

These are two individuals who truly deserve to be in the Racing Hall of Fame.  

Stevens has, no doubt, been a model for many a young jockey.

Lukas has not only been a model, he's been the progenitor of most of the top young trainers in the sport today who cut their teeth under many years of his tutelage.

The sport owes both of them a standing ovation for their achievement on the Triple Crown trail this year.  

27 May 2013 2:20 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

Grreat story!  I enjoyed it. I'm glad for D. Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens. Looking forward to the Belmont.

27 May 2013 9:00 AM
baramarie

I love Gary Stevens, he is a great jockey and I am glad to see him back.

BUT not this race! Orb had more TC potential seen in many years and seeing a great horse lose because of a lousy ride by Rosario just kills me.

I just don't see Oxbow as a great horse.

I was completely sure Barbaro was the one only to have a tragic ending. I believe a TC is what racing needs and that Orb could have been the one.

Glad for a heartwarmy story, but I 'd rather be looking forward to a TC in the Belmont.

27 May 2013 9:07 AM
Mary

Point Given, look at his tail female line, replete with stamina and speed. I love that Blue Larkspur/Bull Dog cross in "Foggy Note's pedigree.  

27 May 2013 11:13 AM
Jockeygirl

What a great journey they have had! Truly legendary!

27 May 2013 12:05 PM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

Cassandra.Says do you think Nick Noltes character in LUCK is based on Lucas.They kinda look similar.

27 May 2013 5:43 PM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

Cassandra.Says I should have wrote they kinda look similar sans the three piece suit.

27 May 2013 5:46 PM
Fran Loszynski

Congrats to Midnight Lucky and Rosie yipeee to Gainesway.  Thanks for bringing her home Rosie

27 May 2013 9:54 PM
Steel Dragon

Great story Steve, but the Preakness was a joke. Stevens pretty much said so himself.

28 May 2013 12:06 AM
Cassandra.Says

Nick Nolte could never look "dapper," and Lukas doesn't do "rugged."

Can't see Lukas as a washed-up old hardboot with one horse. It's a part Mickey Rooney played a few times.

I would have watched it more faithfully if it had been filmed in sepia and everyone wore '30s clothes. I mean, really. You stiff a horse for half a year at Santa Anita to make $30,000 betting? When were Santa Anita's purses that low? And you are covering up a hot prospect that nobody knows was sired by Alydar? Secret pedigrees? For that matter, who has ever predicted a stakes win from knowing the sire?

A caricature of a long-gone era.

28 May 2013 5:35 AM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

The modern day schemes I agree are

more sophisticated they have to be,but the seedy side of the business was there and still remains even more so because their is a lot more money.

As far as picking a stakes winner by breeding, hello have you been reading this blog, and a lot of the regular posters.

28 May 2013 10:00 AM
JoyJackson21

Hi Steve,

Great article!  I loved it.  You definitely put your finger on the pulse of explaining the happy, fate-filled teaming of Gary Stevens & D. Wayne Lukas.  When these two get together, especially in a major stakes race, magic happens.  My first connection with this historic duo was in the 1995 Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch.  It was a huge, important win in the life of this (at that time) very young girl - HUGE! - and I've never forgotten a moment of that experience.  Steve, you mentioned some names that bring back such wonderful, special memories for me (Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Charismatic, Serena's Song).  I wasn't able to wager on Winning Colors (too young), but I did see the 1988 Derby on television and I remember being really excited Gary Stevens won the race and that he had won the race on a big, beautiful, powerful filly.  That was exciting stuff to this young female fan of the sport.  These two men, Gary Stevens and D. Wayne Lukas, have created some incredible historic moments in racing, many of them together.  I definitely thought their special brand of magic would reappear in this year's Kentucky Derby.  I was primed, I was ready for it!  I was only one race off on that prediction.  I'm so thrilled for these two Hall of Famers for their winning partnership in the Preakness Stakes, especially Gary Stevens, who has always been my favorite jockey. That these two greats pulled off the Preakness victory on the wonderfully-gritty, tough luck horse Oxbow makes me so happy.  Oxbow deserved this victory - this horse fights so hard every race he's in despite a mountain of obstacles facing him.  It doesn't matter to me that Oxbow doesn't win every race - it's the quality of Oxbow's effort that is impressive to me.  Oxbow has heart.  Oxbow, along with Gary and D. Wayne Lukas, make a marvelous team together.  I couldn't be happier for all three of them.  The first picture accompanying this article of Oxbow, Stevens & Lukas together totally captures essence of the greatness of their bond.  Two racing greats meshing their talents, experience & belief in the potential of a scrappy fighter of a horse named Oxbow together to bring this horse his own moment of Triple Crown racing history.  It's an incredible photograph, Steve.  Great job in capturing their essence, their bond.

This moment, and both men's intertwined story of friendship, mentorship & fateful magic, will make a great movie some day.  And who better than Gary Stevens himself to play Gary Stevens in the movie? - LOL.  He has the acting chops for it, and he can even do his own stunt work riding the horses.  I think it would make a pretty good movie.  

"The Comeback Kids".  That's a great caption for your first photo, Steve.  "The Comeback Kids" is what the movie studio should name the movie about them, too.

I'm looking forward to seeing more great moments from Gary Stevens, D. Wayne Lukas, and Oxbow.  Their stories are all far from over.  And each one is a great story.  I wish them all great good fortune in the Belmont Stakes and many races beyond!

28 May 2013 11:00 AM
GJU

Well-done, Steve! Gary Stevens has always been my favorite jockey and to see him come back to ride after retiring and so far, prove to everyone that he CAN still ride with the best of them, makes horse racing that much more exciting for me. I followed him when he hit the big time out in Southern California in the 80's. SO great for horse racing to see him back in the saddle again. Thanks for another great story!

28 May 2013 11:15 AM
Cheering sister

Just wnt to thank you for your Ox Tale story and this Legends one.  I admit I'm biased towards Wayne (he's my brother).  I've been cheering and supporting him from childhood.Glad he's proved himself and can just enjoy everything. It shows in the pictures--loved them.

28 May 2013 5:18 PM
Soldier Course

Wonderful photos.

In 2008 I had the pleasure of meeting Gary Stevens' son during a tour at Ashford Stud near Lexington.  Gary's son was our guide that day. I remember how professional and unassuming he was, never calling attention to who his famous family connection until a person on the tour asked.

28 May 2013 5:38 PM
SoCalRacer

now now people..with all the excitement of Preakness Day with Gary Stevens Winning and Big Smile of Lukas saying "he's a dream breaker" at least for the KY Derby Winner and that is Not that good.. It's realy don't matter who win But it will Be a Big Boost for Racing Industries to have A Triple Crown Winner.. Now Oxbow is not a bad horse he got his way at the Preakness and Steven..well celebrate now but remember is not always the case.. the Belmont is next week ask yourself people, Are you Steven & Lukas fan will you bet them again? let see If the "Legend" Lukas Still have a Smile after The Belmont..maybe?

28 May 2013 9:54 PM
Native Dancer

As usual Steve delights us with an incomparable depiction of the triumph of two beloved legends. I am always impressed by the perfect balance of emotions and utmost knowledge deployed in his writings. Gary Steven dedicating a win to a deceased friend certainly struck a climactic string in most of his readers …! The example of perseverance, discipline and passion put forward by these heroes is certainly very appealing.

I am pretty sure that these inspirational stories will germinate into the mind and souls of so many thoroughbred lovers and could eventually help create other Lukases and Stevens to enrich the sport and ensure its sustainability.

Again, most grateful to Steve and looking forward to his next creation.

28 May 2013 11:21 PM
Derby Dew

Steve,

You nailed it with your story of two horseracing legends.  I really enjoyed it, as I often do with your writing.  You have this gift of richly describing events and people.

As for Lukas, count me among those who have criticized D. Wayne for his "run 'em till they drop" style of training.  Well, I've now come full circle and admire Mr. Lukas'

method of racing his horses into shape.  As long as they're sound, there's no reason to let them wallow in their stalls.  Glad to see D. Wayne back on the big stage.

Gary Stevens, meanwhile, has returned to the saddle with renewed vigor.  His life story is full of risk taking and he hasn't shied from taking new roads while out of the saddle (this guy can act).

Score one for the good guys..... there's more to come, I'm sure.

29 May 2013 8:05 AM
steve from st louis

I can't think of another sport where Hall of Fame inductees still compete at the highest level. What a gift racing is! The Coach can knock heads with trainers old enough to be his great-grandchildren while Stevens' return is akin to 52-year-old Eric Dickerson coming back and leading the NFL in rushing--again.

Thoroughbreds only get one chance to be three but the men and women  in racing can remain as young as they feel.

29 May 2013 11:40 AM
Soldier Course

baramarie and SoCalRacer:

Well, yes, racing needs a Triple Crown winner. Desperately. Even Time magazine says so. And I need one, to get all my stars back in alignment and fulfill my personal legend. I suspect that many of us here feel that way, judging from all the passion.

But Orb lost. His personal legend does not include a three-sided silver bowl made by Cartier. The Triple Crown can't be connived. We wouldn't want that. So for now we have to find some consolation prize. Like this story about Lukas and Stevens.

29 May 2013 3:01 PM
JoyJackson21

To SoCal Racer:

Why wouldn't Oxbow/Stevens/Lukas fans go back and support them again in the Belmont?  Their fans were certainly rewarded well for their support in the Preakness Stakes.  Oxbow has an excellent chance at doing well in this race. I have no trouble going back and supporting Oxbow w/Gary Stevens again.  I did in the AK Derby.  I did in the KY Derby.  I did in the Preakness.  It's no big deal to me doing so again in the Belmont Stakes.  Singled and in exotics.  I speak for myself, of course.  But I get a feeling many others will be on board.  Oxbow's odds are likely to be much lower in the Belmont Stakes than the 15-1 he went off at in the Preakness.  That Preakness win woke up a lot of people about Oxbow.  Those that fell off the bandwagon prior to that race will probably want to grab a good seat when they get back on the bandwagon again this time around. - LOL.

29 May 2013 3:01 PM
Your Only Friend

Great Article....

Lukas/Stevens

"Never say Never"

29 May 2013 7:17 PM
TerriV

That piece of writing is so satisfying it almost makes up for the end of Triple Crown hope again this year. Almost.

29 May 2013 8:35 PM
Slew

Gosh Steve, 2 words blanked out much else as I was taken back to another Golden Age...My all-time favorite jockey...Eddie Arcaro...astride the inimitable Citation.  Wow!

Back to the present.  Stevens has come back so strong and dominating that he has to be not only admired and respected, but also commended for his will power that enabled him to follow the regimen needed to get back to winning form.

I remember in the 2001 Derby, the hype was all about Point Given...he couldn't lose.  Not having seen a prep race, I was backing Congaree.  And Point Given just didn't show up.  I didn't understand what the hype was all about.  When the Preakness came, my jaw dropped as I watched Point Given's performance, and it was still dragging on the floor when I saw the Belmont.  That was one awesome horse who shudda, wudda, cudda had the Crown.  I can't find it in me to blame Gary, or the the trip, or anything else for the Derby loss.  As I've said before, sometimes the horse is just not in the mood or tired or unconcerned.

On the other hand, there's always the ballad about Big Brown, a trainer with steroids, and a jockey who quit on his horse. Big Brown deserved a better team.

But Oxbow had a great team behind him.  It was his day, and more power to him...he deserved a good win.

But Orb remains my main man this year. 9 days to the Belmont...I'm gearing up.

30 May 2013 6:44 PM
Bellwether

They sure tripped me and my pocket book up...Deep down I knew Oxbow was the Horse to look out for...Oxbow and his connections will always be my blessing in disguise!!!...Wonderful story to boot...ty...  

31 May 2013 9:02 AM
Soldier Course

Mike Relva:

We've been missing you since the Preakness.

31 May 2013 4:11 PM
cuba"s classic chef de race

orb is like what happen to me do not worry i will be back.revolutionary  want to be another Union Rags that is okey Oxbow  by Awsome Again think that he is better then Paynter,Golden Soul has more stamina than both,so who will win this race? PAlace Malice ? the pace may help him a little,the peter pan winner has mighty appeal in his 3d dam and the song of A P Indy lost by 10 milles, then do you think a slow pace is going to favor oxbow,revolutionary and palace malice?because in a handicapper's point of view are the horses that can surprise and i will have them to be exact, but if you look for a grand slam Golden Soul has shown that more ground is okey for him,you never know Mr Prospector is a little confuse as a broodmare sire of stayers 3 years old but S.Wells by N.Dancer And secretariat and Exclusive Native can by a dangerous blood to play games at 12 furlongs but i can maid  up my mine in a week.    

01 Jun 2013 10:27 PM
cuba"s classic chef de race

if you measure Orb derby win by lost ground the then the derby finish was 16/5/6 and not 16/4/3 same start with a different and, do you think orb trainer want to lose so much ground at his home track?    

01 Jun 2013 10:43 PM
cuba"s classic chef de race

my friend haskin,i consider myself not an expert but some body like you in a sense that love a game that is so mathematical and at the same time so hopeful that let me explore what i have learned and show the racing fan that you do not have to be perfect to win.

01 Jun 2013 11:01 PM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

CUBA after reading you analysis I am left with the lingering theory of burning all my handcap notes and nomenclature and taking up to be a safe-cracker,and always not forget eat my black beans and rice factory.

02 Jun 2013 11:04 PM
cuba"s classic chef de race

Chief Picawinna if you do not like my coments do not read them,you said you like Palace Malice in the derby and i dislike him do you not like him any more? i can give you a handicapping lesson next Saturday,and yes you may have to burn your handicap notes after the belmont stakes my friend.

03 Jun 2013 8:21 PM

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