Winning a grade 1 event with a juvenile is no small feat. For the same connections to win the same race three times in the span of nine years means there’s more at play than happenstance.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owners Robert Baker and William Mack turned the triple Sept. 4 at Saratoga when their Sporting Chance beneath Luis Saez held on win the Hopeful Stakes despite bolting inside the sixteenth pole. The victory follows the trio’s earlier trips to the winner’s circle with Strong Mandate in 2013 and Dublin in 2009.
What’s interesting is that all three winners were yearling purchases from the Keeneland September yearling sale by Lukas, who only buys two horses a year for the owners. Despite never having many eggs in the basket, they’ve come up with other stars—and stallions—as well, such as Grand Slam, Proud Citizen, and Scorpion.
Those that call it luck must not know Lukas very well.
“I go through close to 2,500-3,000 head—the first several books (of the September sale)—and I try to find an athletic horse with a little bit of pedigree,” Lukas said. “I always try to buy a horse that if he’s good, at the end of the day, somebody else will want him. Mr. Baker and Mr. Mack are not breeders. They’re people that want to have a racehorse. They want to compete at the highest level, but they want the horses to move on. Proud Citizen, Grand Slam, Strong Mandate, Dublin…those horses have all gone on to some other place to stand at stud.
“Being an athlete is absolute,” Lukas continued. “That’s the first thing. I have to have something that can run. If they can’t run, it doesn’t make a damn the way he’s bred.
“I shop pretty hard. If you’re only going to buy a couple, you have to do a little shopping. In the old days when I had (owners) Eugene Klein and Bob Lewis, we could buy in multiples and spread our risk a little.”
The power partnership of Lukas, Baker, and Mack have had quite a run through the last 20 years. Not all of their purchases have been stakes winners, but they’ve had more than their fair share and Lukas is quick to point out: “Not many didn’t pan out; some that didn’t get on the front page of your magazine were still pretty good horses. It’s worked out well.”
Sporting Chance was nearly their fourth Hopeful winner. Last year Royal Copy, a $350,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales April purchase, ran second at the Spa, beaten a neck, in the Hopeful to Practical Joke.
Lukas has won the seven-furlong Hopeful eight times in the race’s 113 runnings. Wins in the 1990s came with W.T. Young’s Deposit Ticket and Salt Lake. The Lewises—Bob and Beverly— won in 1995 with Hennessy and in 1999 with High Yield. Michael Tabor’s Yonaguska dead-heated with City Zip for the win in 2000.
“It’s a race that has been awful good to us. It’s a wonderful race to showcase a prospective horse,” Lukas said of the seven-furlong race for 2-year-olds. “It’s a great race to use as a stepping-stone to the Breeders’ Cup. It’s a nice progression.
“It’s kind of a ‘sire-making’ race. The ones we’ve won with we’ve been able to market at a later date,” he said.
The numbers back it up. Salt Lake sired 79 stakes winners. Hennessy sired 76 stakes winners.
Lukas spoke to us while driving back to his base at Churchill Downs from Saratoga after the Spa meet closed a race after the Hopeful. He has plenty of time to get back to Kentucky, where he’ll make his way to Lexington for this year’s September sale that starts Sept. 11.
He’ll be shopping for two.