By Bill Finley
Wayne Lukas has won the GI Kentucky Oaks four times, but should there be a fifth this year it would no doubt be among the most special accomplishments of this Hall of Famer's career.
He's no longer able to attack the race with an arsenal of well-bred, expensive and talented horses sent his way by some of the sport's biggest owners. Those days are long gone. Instead, the 86-year-old trainer will have to overcome the odds and an inherent bias in the sport against older trainers and try to win the Oaks with the best filly he has trained in some time, Secret Oath (Arrogate). Lukas is hoping she takes another step toward the Oaks with a win in Saturday's GIII Honeybee S. at Oaklawn Park, where she will likely be a solid favorite.
“I have been there already and have had that experience, but at 86 it's quite a nice feeling to know that there is maybe one more in the history books out there for me,” Lukas said.
It's not just Lukas. The sport has a way of turning its back on older trainers, no matter how successful they may have been at one point. Lukas has averaged 17 winners a year since 2018 and, prior to Secret Oath's win in the Martha Washington, his last stakes win came in the Apr. 4, 2017 GIII Commonwealth S. at Keeneland with Warrior's Club (Warrior's Reward).
“I don't want to be shuffled to the back burner,” he said. “I don't want the young guys who weren't around when we were having so much success… I don't want them to look over and say, 'That old man over there, he used to win races.'”
The dominant trainer in the sport in the eighties and for much of the nineties, Lukas was forced to reinvent himself about 20 years ago. Once having a 100-plus horses with barns spread out across the country, he's down to one division, which divides the year between Oaklawn and Churchill Downs. Lukas has 25 horses and no longer has the luxury of working for deep-pocketed owners who supply their trainers with an assembly line of talent. Typical of the type of owners Lukas has, Secret Oath, a homebred, is owned by Robert and Stacy Mitchell, and she is their only horse in training.
“We didn't start out with six fillies like this one,” Lukas said. “We started out with one. We're probably beating the odds that an old man like me with a one-horse stable could take this to the next level.”
Yet, Lukas has never shown any signs of bitterness nor has he allowed himself to feel sorry for himself. Rather, he's gone about his business the same as he always has since getting started with Thoroughbreds in 1977. That means showing up the barn early every morning and putting in a full day of work while trying to get the best out of every horse in his stable. He may have slowed down some, but just some. For someone his age, his energy level is remarkable.
“I love the competition,” he said. “I've always wanted to win the big ones. My energy level comes from a passion for the game. I'm getting a lot more speaking engagements where people want me to answer that question, what keeps me going? I don't think about it. It just comes natural. It's something I've been doing my entire life and as long as my health is good, which it is, why stop?”
His daily routine includes getting on a pony and supervising morning training from that vantage point. He's not about to stop doing that, but he admits it's no longer as easy as it used to be.
“I have a little more trouble getting on the pony and a little more trouble getting off him,” Lukas said. “I don't just bounce off him. I call one of the assistants over and say that I'm getting off, catch me if I fall.”
He says that he is enjoying training a small stable, which has its advantages.
“I like the fact I can go out there and get on my horse every morning,” Lukas said. “I get on my saddle pony and I am able to deal one-on-one with every horse in the barn. Even if it were offered to me, I wouldn't want a stable in New York, one in California and one here. Those days beat me up. It doesn't have any appeal anymore.”
Secret Oath took a while to figure things out. She won one of her first three starts while posting modest Beyer figures and was drubbed when trying stakes company in the GII Golden Rod S. last fall at Churchill Downs, where she was fifth, beaten 11 1/4 lengths.
Everything changed in a Dec. 31 allowance at Oaklawn. Out of nowhere, she won by 8 1/4 lengths while earning a 93 Beyer figure. Lukas brought her back in the Jan. 29 Martha Washington S. and she turned in another huge effort, winning by 7 1/4 lengths.
“We thought from the very beginning that she would win races,” Lukas said. “You never know how far they are going to go. She gets over the ground so beautifully. She tipped her hand. We ran her in that allowance race with some good horses to see where we were at and that race was beautiful. You couldn't have scripted it any better than that. When she came back in the Martha Washington, we were looking for that same type of performance and actually we got a full duplication of that race. We are high on her and we're getting optimistic. We will go into the Honeybee full of hope. When she accelerates she does so so quickly she just breaks their heart.”
Lukas will also be represented in the $1-million GII Rebel S. Saturday at Oaklawn with Ethereal Road (Quality Road). He's coming off a maiden win where he broke slowly, was last of 12 and then closed with a rush to draw off to a four-length win. He'll be a longshot in the Rebel, but Lukas said he is high on his chances.
“Our little barn has some balance to it,” he said. “We might have a Kentucky Derby prospect, too.”
Thirty-two years after he last won a Kentucky Oaks in 1990 with Seaside Attraction, Lukas seems comfortable in his role as the sport's elder statesman. He said he finds it gratifying when younger trainers come to him seeking his advice, which he is happy to give.
“At this stage of my career, I think I owe it to the industry to do the best job that I can,” he said.
Should Secret Oath get to the Oaks, Lukas will be the story, the octogenarian trainer seeking one more coveted win. His glory days are well behind him, but it's not like he has forgotten how to train a good horse. He's been doing his very best to show that 86 is just a number. So is five, the record for most wins in the Kentucky Oaks, which is held by Woody Stephens. Lukas needs just one more win to tie him. Can he do it? Why not?