Wayne Lukas was in his office the morning after Will Take Charge's victory in the 144th Travers Stakes. Watching his every move with attentive and loving eyes was his Australian Shepherd Boomer, whose father won Best of Breed at Westminster.
Whether it is dogs, clothing, women, or gardening and landscaping, Lukas has always surrounded himself with nothing but the best. But what he takes pride in most of all is his ability to teach - people, horses, or dogs.
"Watch this," Lukas said. "Boomer, stay." Boomer quickly went down on his belly and lay on the floor motionless.
"Now call him," Lukas said. "Here, boomer; come here, Boomer." Nothing. Boomer would not budge no matter how many times we called him. Then Lukas in a low, calm voice said, "Okay," and Boomer came running over to us.
This was vintage Lukas, who reads animals as well as anyone and has perfected a lifetime of teaching skills in dealing with them and teaching them.
He sure knows how to read Will Take Charge, just as he knew how to read Oxbow earlier in the year before the colt was sidelined with an injury.
Oxbow was always the All-American kid who was a great athlete and a tough, hard-nosed competitor. Will Take Charge was the big awkward kid who had great ability, but often was clumsy, stumbling over his own feet. He did have his good days, such as the time he ran down Oxbow at the wire to win the Rebel Stakes at odds of 28-1.
Lukas knew it was only time before he grew into himself and matured both physically and mentally and put it all together on a consistent basis. It looked as if it were going to happen in the Kentucky Derby when the big chestnut rallied stride for stride with eventual winner Orb, only to run smack into a retreating Verrazano. Once a big, long-striding colt gets stopped it is almost impossible to get him going again and Will Take Charge wound up finishing eighth.
Two dismal and inexplicable performances followed in the Preakness and Belmont and it was back to square one for Lukas. He gave the son of Unbridled's Song a couple of months off and went into teaching mode. Returning in the Jim Dandy Stakes, Will Take Charge, like Boomer, came running when Lukas gave him the command, and he finished a fast-closing second to Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice in a snappy 1:47 1/5 for the 1 1/8 miles. Now it was important he come back and duplicate that effort.
If Lukas' teaching was to have any effect, it would be demonstrated in the Travers Stakes, which many felt would decide the 3-year-old championship among Palace Malice, Verrazano, and Orb. Oxbow's injury had pretty much eliminated him from consideration, and it was up to Will Take Charge to fill the void left by the Preakness winner's injury.
After four decades, Lukas still is like a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out gold and silver. His museum-sized trophy room is proof of that. Could the 77-year-old Hall of Famer actually wind up with a Preakness winner and a Travers winner in the same year, just as he supposedly was fading into the twilight of his career?
Hotwalker Freddie Johnson certainly thought so after Will Take Charge finished up his training two days before the Travers and Lukas said to him, "Freddie, be careful with him; he's ready. Nobody touch him but you, OK? He's going so good right now, watch him real good. Let him go out there and graze."
The next morning, Johnson got him out at a quarter to five before anyone else. As Lukas was about to go out with the first set, Johnson said to him, "He really dragged me around there. I gave him about 30 minutes of grazing and he's real happy. One more day, boss...one more day."
The following day, around 6:30 p.m., Johnson was celebrating Will Take Charge's thrilling Travers victory in the Director's Room with Lukas and owner Willis Horton and watching the replay of the colt's stirring last-second surge in the shadow of the wire.
It was if he were watching the race live all over again. As Luis Saez grabbed hold of Will Take Charge and quickly steered him to the outside, the colt saw daylight and kicked into another gear. Winning still looked hopeless, as the pace-setting Moreno was still running on strongly, but Will Take Charge's surge in the final yards was something to see.
"Dig, son...dig, son...dig, son," Johnson pleaded, even knowing the result. It was that exciting and improbable a finish.
Lukas had won his third Travers, the last coming 18 years ago with Thunder Gulch, and was basking in his second national spotlight in the last three months. Earlier in the year, he had been content merely to have his 40-horse stable at Oaklawn Park and enjoy the camaraderie with his fellow trainers and the local townspeople.
"I would leave day passes at the dry cleaners, and when I tipped waitresses I'd also leave them four day passes," Lukas said. "I would take the kids out there with me to the winner's circle every time I won. If I was 3-2 or 5-2, all the parents would head down to the gap near the winner's circle with their kids. Hell, I could have run for mayor down there."
Lukas is more at peace with himself these days and loves sharing special times with his fiancée Laurie Krause.
It was a different story back in the 1990s when Lukas had to endure potshots taken at him from all directions. One in particular was the time he was called a marketer in the Louisville Courier-Journal, with quotes from several of his peers.
Lukas went out and won the Kentucky Derby that same week with Grindstone, but that article still had left its scars.
He arrived at the barn at dawn the morning after the Derby and finally let his feelings pour out.
"What did I ever do to deserve this?" he said. "The quotes they got were very unkind and some of the people who were quoted swore to me they never said it. I really had to bite my tongue at the press conference in respect to Mr. Young (Grindstone's owner William T. Young). I stand out here for four or five hours a day and try to do my job, and they've got me as some Barnum-and-Bailey guy that doesn't know a thing about a horse.
"I can't be somebody I'm not. Am I supposed to come here and wear a different type of clothes and change my whole makeup? I'm not supposed to be competent? I'm not supposed to be a good speaker? If a guy wants to put my name on a label of clothing, I should say 'no' because I'm a horse trainer? The quotes from the other trainers were very damaging, and I'm having trouble handling that. I've had an education and I've coached, so my background is different than a lot of horse trainers. I'm proud of my staff and I'm proud of what we've done. That's what we are; deal with it. If that offends you and you think I'm obnoxious, just say, 'I don't like that guy's personality.' But don't just keep hammering us all the time."
Contrary to what has been written about him over the years, everyone who has worked for Lukas has marveled at his horsemanship and how he can get inside a horse's head. You have to be a pretty good teacher to send out pupils such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart, Mike Maker, Mark Hennig, Randy Bradshaw, George Weaver, and Bobby Barnett.
At age 77, Lukas still is as dapper as ever; still looks as cool with shades as anyone; still is a master motivational speaker, and is as articulate and witty as ever. And he still loves his friendly sparring with the media. ("I want to thank all the reporters for leaving me alone all week," he said following the Travers).
But this is not the same old Lukas. It has taken a downsizing from his once powerful dynasty and a more serene outlook on life in general to turn him into a happy person who loves what he's doing more than he ever has.
"I'm really comfortable where I'm at," Lukas said. "I don't get up every morning trying to prove I can train a racehorse anymore. Whatever legacy we've developed, so be it. I'm enjoying it more than I ever did. I love working with horses, especially these kind. When you're younger you think you have to prove to yourself, your colleagues and the public that you can train a racehorse. I don't feel that anymore. I can go over there and get my ass kicked on Saturday and I'll be comfortable or I can win it and I'll be comfortable, too, that I did the right thing."
After several marriages, Lukas realizes how difficult it is to make a total commitment to two loves.
"If you're going to do this, maybe you shouldn't consider having too much of a social life; that you're going to do it right," he said. "I think my intensity factor gets in the way a little bit. I married these horses a long time ago. I thought I could get a relationship to blend in with that, but it's pretty damn tough. After a while when you go seven or eight years and don't take a day off and you get up at 3:30 every morning, they start questioning that, and rightly so. I blame myself for all of it."
But there is no doubt he has a special relationship with Laurie, and that the two care deeply for each other.
Lukas has indeed mellowed and enjoys mentoring young rival trainers, something he never would have done years ago. When he loses he now can be happy for others.
"I'm not saying I'm complacent, but I handle it a little better, and I handle losing better, too," he said. "I feel and obligation and a responsibility at my age to help young trainers, and I'm real open to sharing this now. When I was 50 I wouldn't do that. Now I take great pride in being able to give back a little.
"I don't jump in the air and praise the American flag and my mother and apple pie when they cross the finish line. I enjoy it in a more subtle way. The satisfaction of winning is always going to drive you whether you show it outwardly or inwardly. And there is still that personal satisfaction of achieving something nobody else has. I shared a record with a very special person (Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons) in the Thoroughbred industry and now I have the record for most Triple Crown wins by myself. But that's not the record I want. (Fitzsimmons) won a Preakness at age 82. That's the record I want."
If there is anything he would change with the course his life has taken it would be to share everything with the one person who was the backbone of the operation for so many years.
"I'd like Jeff with me for the ride," he said. His son Jeff, of course, suffered a near-fatal brain injury at Santa Anita in December of 1993 when he was run down by Tabasco Cat, who had gotten loose outside the barn.
Today, Jeff, has settled into his new life in Atoka, Oklahoma, where he works for a bank.
"Jeff accepts the cards he was dealt," Lukas said. "But he's doing really well. He lives through his children. His son graduated from the Air force Academy with honors this year, and his daughter is on a soccer scholarship in Califiornia. He still follows racing closely. Ask him about the LeComte and he'll rattle off the splits for you."
The extreme downsizing of the Lukas empire has been due mainly to the deaths of his main clients, such as Gene Klein, William T. Young, and Bob Lewis. He also lost Prince Ahmed Salman of the Thoroughbred Corp, for whom he saddled a number of top-class horses.
"You don't replace those guys," Lukas said. "You've got to build it back up from scratch."
That is why Will Take Charge's Travers victory was so special to him after being reunited last year with the colt's owner Willis Horton.
"I left Wayne for 20 years and had several trainers during that time," the 73-year-old Horton said. "Last year, I knew I had the good stock and I knew he had the knowledge, and he's a workaholic. He don't let anything keep him from his horses. When I called him and told him I was going to turn my horses over to him, he was in a horse van coming back from Saratoga. He was in the truck with the horses and I asked him if he wanted to train my horses, and he said, 'Sure, I want to train them.' I said, 'Well, when you get to Churchill Downs I'll have them over at your barn."
One of Horton's horses who was waiting for him was a large, growthy chestnut son of Unbridled's Song, out $2.4 million earner Take Charge Lady, by Dehere, who Horton had purchased at the previous year's Keeneland Fall yearling sale for $425,000.
A year later, he was a Travers winner. "Three strides from the wire, the only thing I thought of was Willis and his wife," Lukas said. "I've been blessed so much in my career with so many nice horses and with some beautiful clients down through the years. I've lost some of them in the recent years, but I always feel like on these particular days -- Belmonts, Preaknesses, whatever -- it's the most wonderful feeling to be able to give somebody who put up his money, stayed by you, and believed in you, that special moment. I really mean that sincerely."
Another amazing aspect of Will Take Charge's victory is that Unbridled's Song died in late July. Three weeks later, bloodstock agent Buzz Chace, the man who bought Unbridled's Song for Ernie Paragallo, also died. Then Unbridled's Song sires the winner of the Travers Stakes a week later. Earlier in the meet, Unbridled's Song's son, Cross Traffic, won the Whitney.
Will Take Charge showed that he has indeed come of age with closing fractions of :23 4/5 and :24 2/5 that were impressive even with the surprisingly slow pace.
As Lukas made his way to the track, Marylou Whitney's husband John Hendrickson said to him, "You ain't dead yet."
Walking to the interview tent near the jockeys quarters, a cacophony of congratulations engulfed Lukas, as fans shouted, "D. Wayne, we love you" and "Wayne, you're awesome." They even echoed Hendrickson: "Wayne, you ain't dead yet."
According to assistant Sebastian (Bass) Nicholl, Will Take Charge was full of himself coming back to the barn and he was still bright and alert and feisty the following morning.
Nicholl, a native of England, discussed the tight-knit family that is so important to any operation.
"Although their horses were rivals, Oxbow's groom was celebrating with Will Take Charge's groom," he said. "Through all the big races, both grooms have been happy for each other. It's just a lovely teamwork we have here; great camaraderie. Most of them have been with Wayne for a long time."
Lukas, who is not exactly a party animal, originally intended to just go back home and have his usual chocolate milk and cheeseburger, but decided to take Laurie out and celebrate.
"We went to the Wishing Well and it was packed," Lukas said. "I told the gal, 'I hope we don't put you on the spot here, we don't mind waiting.' She said, 'Absolutely not, Mr. Lukas, we'll get a table ready for you right away. I was kind of embarrassed because I heard one guy say there was an hour and 40-minute wait. We go down those few steps leading into the dining room and everyone in there stood and applauded."
The broad smile on Lukas' face as he related the incident told the story. Lukas owned the town of Saratoga. He was back atop the racing world.
It was just like old times.