By Bill Finley
As Hall of Famer Wayne Lukas entered his mid-eighties, his longevity and his persistence became one of racing's best feel-good stories. A trainer who belongs in the conversation as one of the best of all time, he was still out there every day, physically active, mentally sharp. There didn't seem to be anything stopping him.
But there was a missing ingredient. Lukas, now 87, simply wasn't winning many races, especially important ones. Lukas won the 2018 GII Risen Star S. with Bravazo (Awesome Again) on Feb. 17, 2018. He didn't win another graded stakes until Secret Oath (Arrogate) won the GIII Honeybee S. on Feb. 16, 2022, nearly four years after Bravazo's win. From 2018 through 2021, he won just 69 races and his winning percentage was just 10.8%. It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. There just weren't many owners willing to trust their horses to a trainer in his mid-eighties. The days of having Eugene Klein, William T. Young. Bob and Beverly Lewis and so many other top owners were long gone.
At his age, Lukas appeared destined to spend the rest of his days with a relatively small stable with the kind of horses that might give him an allowance win here or there. Counting him out seemed like a safe bet. Only it wasn't.
When Last Samurai (Malibu Moon) won Saturday's GIII Essex H. at Oaklawn Lukas picked up his third graded stakes win on the year. He also won the GIII Razorback H. with Last Samurai and the GII Azeri S. with Secret Oath. It's early but both look like Eclipse Award candidates. He has not had an Eclipse Award winner since Take Charge Brandi (Giant's Causeway) was named champion 2-year-old filly in 2014.
He may not be the Wayne Lukas of the mid-eighties when he dominated the sport. What he is is relevant again.
A lot of this has to do with Secret Oath, who put Lukas back in the spotlight last year and proved that he could still get the job done at the highest level. Her win in the GI Kentucky Oaks was arguably Lukas' biggest win since Will Take Charge (Unbridled's Song) won the GI Travers S. in 2013. It's not that Lukas remembered how to train. It was that someone-the filly's owners and breeders, Rob and Stacy Mitchell–were willing to give Lukas a chance with a talented horse.
“We've been with him, gosh, 15 or 17 years,” Stacy Mitchell told the TDN's Chris McGrath last year. “He's fair, he's honest, a true gentleman, someone everyone should have the opportunity to sit down and have a coffee with. As he has said, times have changed. Some of his big clients got out of the business, some passed on. Again, he said it himself, people used to love the old guys, now they love the new guys. But a lot of those are people he trained himself. You don't forget how to ride a bicycle, and I don't think you forget how to train a horse. People can say Wayne is back, but in my mind, I don't think he ever went away.”
In mid-summer last year, Willis Horton, who had had several top horses with Lukas over the years, also showed some faith in the Hall of Famer. He made a switch, sending the then 4-year-old Last Samurai from Dallas Stewart to Lukas. (Horton has since passed away and Last Samurai now races for his family). Initially, it looked like Lukas wasn't going to get much out of the horse who lost seven straight after the change in trainers. But Lukas figured something out and Last Samurai is now one of the hottest horses in the sport.
Ask Lukas and he will tell you he's lost nothing off of his fastball.
“Our game is an experience based game,” he said. “There are no how-to books. If you've been at it as long as I have been it becomes a little bit easier. You see things that you can correct. l see things I can do with a horse now that I wouldn't have been aware of when I was in my forties or fifties. The game gets a little easier. Believe it or not, I think it's easier for me now to develop a nice horse than when I was 50 and I had some nice years in that era.”
After all these years, is he still learning?
“If you're in the horse business you are always learning,” Lukas said. “The whole secret to this game is to read the horse. You need to read the horse and figure out what its capabilities are without over doing it. That's where you get in trouble. You think you can develop a horse to a certain level in a certain time frame and when you fail at it you're not going to get the maximum out of the horse. If you can read them and know when to push them and when not to the game can be pretty good.”
Secret Oath is heading to the GI Apple Blossom H., where she'll likely be the favorite. Up next for Last Samurai will likely be the GII Oaklawn H., a race he won last year for Stewart. They're both $1 million races. Lukas also has Caddo River (Hard Spun), who was second in the 2021 GI Arkansas Derby and won a Feb. 25 allowance at Oaklawn, and Major Blue (Flatter), a recent maiden winner at Oaklawn. He's on track to have his best year since 2013.
He'll turn 88 in September. Yes, he's a survivor but this year he's showing that he's something a lot more than just that.
Secretariat | Coglianese
Fifty Years Ago, Secretariat Won His 3-Year-Old Debut
On March 17, 1973, Secretariat made his 3-year-old debut in the GIII Bay Shore S. at Aqueduct. Click here for the replay of the race.
How things have changed. The purse was just $27,750 and the attendance was 32,906. It was the first of his three preps for the GI Kentucky Derby and they would come within a span five weeks, culminating in his defeat in the GI Wood Memorial.
The Bay Shore was not without a dose of controversy. Riding Impecunious, jockey James Moseley claimed foul against Secretariat and rider Ron Turcotte. Secretariat was blocked for much of the race and Turcotte did have to bull his way through horses in the stretch. Trainer Lucien Laurin was not pleased.
“That Moseley,” he said. “He claimed against me in the Garden State, but it turned out that his horse was at fault in that race.”
According to the report in the New York Times, some fans booed when the stewards declared there would be no change in the order of the finish.
“Let them boo,” Penny Tweedy said. “We've won the race.”
But Laurin was pleased with the end result.
“He was wonderful,” he said. “He did everything I expected him to.”
Fifty years after what was the most memorable season in the history of horse racing, it would have been a perfect time for NYRA to announce it had named a stakes races in honor of Big Red. The GI Hopeful S., a race Secretariat won, would have been a perfect candidate. But it was not to be.