Lukas Relishing His Return to the Kentucky Derby

D. Wayne Lukas | Coady


For a time, Wayne Lukas was as much a part of the GI Kentucky Derby as mint juleps and roses. From 1981, when he sent out his first Derby starter in Partez, to 2000, he had at least one starter in the race every year while running a total of 38 horses. Four of them–Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic–won.

But he hasn't had a starter since Bravazo (Awesome Again) in 2018 and hasn't had a winner since Charismatic in 1999. But the drought is over as the 88-year-old training legend has managed to accumulate enough points (65) with GI Arkansas Derby runner-up Just Steel (Justify) that the colt, barring injury, is guaranteed a spot in the Derby starting gate.

“I'm really excited about being back, but I don't want to be back without a legitimate chance,” Lukas said. “I've already heard 'My Old Kentucky Home' and seen our silks out there on the track. I don't need to go through that. I am interested in trying to get a good horse there.”

Just Steel was seventh, beaten 10 lengths, in the GII Rebel S. and looked to be in over his head that day facing some of the best in the division. But he ran a much-improved race in the Arkansas Derby, finishing second behind Muth (Good Magic) at odds of 32-1.

It was just the type of effort Lukas was looking for from his colt.

“I've been managing this horse a little bit and trying to get him really good,” he said. “He stands 17 hands and he weighs 1,300 pounds. He's a big growthy horse that I didn't want to push a lot in March and April. I wanted to have him good enough so that I could sneak in on the points. But I didn't want to push hard on him.”

With Lukas yet to fully tighten the screws, he is expecting a much-improved performance come Derby Day.

“I finally put a mile work into him to get him ready,” Lukas said. “He's got some quality about him. If I can use the next month to tighten on him a little bit I think he will keep the race honest. I think he will take a quantum leap forward. I could see him improving something like 10 points from the last race to this race. I expect him to jump forward quite a bit.”

That Lukas is back in the Derby isn't necessarily a surprise. For the first time in a few years he has deep-pocketed clients that are spending serious money at the sales. Just Steel runs for BC Stables LLC, the stable name for the partnership of John Bellinger and Brian Coelho.

“I'm very happy for those clients,” he said. “These are my new guys and they have really stepped up financially. They are our No. 1 clients. The yearlings they bought last year are outstanding. I'm more interested in getting them to the Derby than I am getting myself back there. I was really happy after the Arkansas Derby knowing we have gotten them into the Derby.”

Lukas is also holding out hope that Seize the Grey (Arrogate) will earn enough points in Saturday's GI Blue Grass S. to also make it into the Derby field. Owned by MyRacehorse, he was third last time out in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks.

“He's a solid horse. And he's got 600 owners, so if we can get him in we'll make a lot of people happy.”

While Lukas will be the oldest trainer taking part in this Derby, his 25-year-old jockey, Keith Asmussen, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, will be among the youngest and the least experienced. But Lukas has taken a liking to him and is using him not only on Just Steel but his GI Kentucky Oaks candidate Lemon Muffin (Collected). Asmussen started his riding career in 2020 and this will be his first mount in a Triple Crown race.

“I go back a long way with his family,” Lukas said. “His grandfather and grandmother and I are very close friends. We went from South Dakota to Laredo, Texas together. We combined our stables. We've been close family friends forever. The young Keith has got such a good horse background and he is a really smart rider. He's got a master's degree, for crying out loud. He listens and he does what you want him to do. He makes very good decisions in the race. I understand experience-wise he is lacking but he's a real cool customer. He doesn't get all caught up in it. He is very solid. I will not be changing jockeys.”

Just Steel won't be one of the favorites, but Lukas has won plenty of big races with horses few people gave a chance to. He's won four Derbies but never lost the desire to win a fifth. It's just taken him a while to get back there, and he plans to make the most of the opportunity.


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