The Consignors and Commercial Breeders’ Association hosted its annual symposium at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion on a quiet and mild Monday evening and the featured event was a toast and roast of legendary Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Lukas’ list of accolades is well documented and cemented into the history of racing. What may be even more impressive than his 14 wins in Triple Crown races or his 20 Breeders’ Cup victories is the list of accomplished trainers that worked in the Lukas barn before going off on their own. Seven of those former protégés joined him for Monday night’s event.
Ron Moquett, Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart, Kiaran McLaughlin, George Weaver and Mark Hennig joined Lukas at Keeneland, seated in a semicircle around the historic sales pavilion where many of Lukas’ famous horses once came through for public auction.
The night began with emcee and track announcer Frank Mirahmadi, whose resume includes calling races at Oaklawn Park, Monmouth Park, and currently, Golden Gate Fields. Mirahmadi also was a former on-air personality at TVG and is a well-known impressionist among the racing industry.
Mirahmadi kicked off the show by walking up to the podium dressed in a dark suit, imitating Lukas’ with his signature cowboy hat and dark sunglasses. Impersonating Lukas, Mirahmadi spoke of several highlights from “The Coach’s” decorated career, taking shots at the media and at Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Mirahmadi joked that Baffert had copied Lukas’ path to fame by starting off training Quarter Horses, then making it to the Thoroughbred level, imitating Lukas’ glasses and white hair, and even stealing some of his owners.
“Before American Pharoah, who was Baffert’s biggest horse?,” Mirahmadi asked the crowd in his eerily similar-sounding Lukas voice. “Point Given? Well who was the sire of Point Given? Thunder Gulch, who we trained to win a Kentucky Derby and a Preakness Stakes. And who was his sire? Drop the Thunder and you’ve got Gulch, we had him, too. So basically everything he had came from me.”
Mirahmadi continued his impersonations of Lukas, and also recreated some famous calls of Lukas’ winners, including the 1988 Kentucky Derby call from announcer Dave Johnson, when Lukas trainee Winning Colors held off Forty Niner. Winning Colors was the third and most recent filly to win the Derby.
A video was shown of a few of Lukas’ friends who could not be in attendance, including Baffert, who said he had little negative to say of Lukas, but joked that he would propose to any pretty girl he ever took to dinner.
Lukas finally got to the stage welcomed by a standing ovation from the estimated crowd of about 150.
Lukas’ former assistants passed around microphones and told stories for about 30 minutes.
A favorite was from Maker, who is known as a man of few words.
“I didn’t have sports stars I looked up to as a kid,” Maker said. “I had D. Wayne Lukas.”
Maker went on to describe how he had called up then Lukas-assistant Dallas Stewart and had asked for a job.
“As they say, I didn’t check any of the boxes,” Maker said. “I couldn’t dress, I couldn’t speak, I just showed up to work. So after Dallas left, I was supposed to meet Wayne at Pep Boys before we were supposed to drive up to Keeneland. So here’s my chance, I’m going to make this big impression. So I’m driving with Wayne in the car and we pull up to a red light, and stop, and Wayne goes, ‘what are you doin’?’ Well, I’m thinking, oncoming traffic, red light, I don’t know, it seemed like an easy question but all the sudden it got difficult.”
“Wayne says to me, ‘Go! Go!’ So we’re going to Keeneland and I’m flying through a construction zone and here come the police. I pull over and Wayne says to the cop, ‘thank God, I’ve been telling him to slow down for miles!’ ”
Each of Lukas’ former assistants listened intently and laughed genuinely at the stories told throughout the night.
Pletcher followed Maker with some more kind words mixed with entertaining commentary.
“People were attracted to the quality of Wayne’s organization, as you can see by the quality of people that are up here,” Pletcher said. “Everyone can recognize that it was an opportunity of a lifetime; to get to work for someone that terrific, that great, was just an unbelievable experience for all of us.
“Actually a couple of the more impressive things I’ve ever seen Wayne do had nothing to do with horses. We used to meet every morning at Saratoga at 4:30 a.m. and we’d go over the day board and set list. And Wayne would come in every morning from Dunkin’ Donuts and would have two huge maple cinnamon rolls and a large coffee. And while we were going over each of those boards, Wayne would take down those two huge cinnamon rolls, these things had to have like 2,500 calories. He said that’s all he would eat for the whole day, and he’d show up looking like a million bucks in one of those $20,000 suits of his.
“Another thing I remember was when Thunder Gulch and Timber Country came in for the Belmont and I was giving Wayne a ride back to the Garden City Hotel. And we drive by this little Carvel shop, and Wayne said, ‘hey let’s stop in there and get a little ice cream or a shake or something.’ And we pull in there and Wayne says to the girl at the counter, ‘give me a double chocolate milkshake.’ She makes it and uses vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, and she gets it all ready for him and hands it to him and he goes, ‘I wanted chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup, double chocolate.’ So she tries to take that one back and he says, ‘no give me that.’ And he drinks that one while she’s making the double chocolate shake.”
Once it was his turn at the microphone Lukas of course delivered some jokes and some heartfelt comments to the audience.
“First of all, I don’t remember these guys being so warm and fuzzy,” Lukas said. “The horses come and go, and the champions are great and everything, but to work with these guys; these guys put me on their shoulders and put me right into the Hall of Fame, and I mean that sincerely. I would have never gotten this far without their help.”