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Tiger and The King

Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas and golfing legend Tiger Woods seem to share little in common, superficially or deep down, aside maybe from both making their living outside in the elements.

One man is a pro golfer now in his late 30s, a former child prodigy, millions in his bank accounts thanks to success on the links and as a pitchman for everything from golf clubs to luxury timepieces to video games to energy drinks. He used to be married to a former Swedish supermodel and now dates Lindsey Vonn, a decorated American skier who has done more than your typical athlete’s share of photo shoots.

Simply put, Woods is an international brand. People say Tiger and nobody thinks of one of the world’s largest carnivores, mascots from Detroit’s Major League Baseball and teams from Auburn, LSU, Missouri and Clemson, or even the cartoon mascot for Frosted Flakes.

The other man is in his late 70s, a former high school hoops coach who changed the sport of Thoroughbred racing forever starting in the 1980s. He’s won every major race there is to take in the U.S., whether it’s the spring classics or the Breeders’ Cup and everything in between. Earned more dough than another other North American trainer 14 times from the early ‘80s to the late ‘90s, sent more major stakes winners to stud barns in Kentucky and throughout the U.S. than anyone, served as a mentor to more than a few of the nation’s leading trainers. The last few years he’s seemed more like a hybrid between a horse trainer, motivational speaker and occasional comedian.

They do share some commonality, however, in the fact that in recent years they’ve still competed in their respective sports’ major events, justifiably so considering  their past successes. Yet at the same time others were taking over the top spots of their sports—places where they dominated, were revered, feared, and most of all respected—they were all but completely discounted.

The Masters and U.S. Open were no longer all about Tiger. The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup were no longer all about D. Wayne.

They were left behind, and that is exactly one place where they share commonality. That and the fact that they’re now both back among the best of their profession.

Lukas’ win with Oxbow in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes helped move him into the 12th position on the North American list of leading trainers by earnings, the same table where he ranked 71st just a year ago.

Woods owns four victories this year and is well ahead of his peers on this year’s PGA Tour money list, the same ranking where he was 135th either due to injury or poor play just two years ago.

About an hour before he put the tack on Oxbow for the 138th Preakness, Lukas was in the Pimlico Race Course winner’s circle questioning how reporters or the public would discount a horse off one bad race. The comments came after Skyring won the Dixie Stakes gate-to-wire under Gary Stevens.

The scene was vintage Lukas. It was a bit more tamed down from the days he blasted reporters or called them cockroaches, but still was in line with what eventually turned into a throwback kind of day at Old Hilltop.

“It’s funny how they’ll dismiss a horse,” Lukas said of the betting public. “The game is set up for you to cheat, all you have to do is give them one bad race and then you can get 24-1.”

Lukas laughed as he said it, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat and probably with a ticket or two to cash, even though earlier in the week he said his other Dixie entrant, eventual third-place finisher, Optimizer, was the better of the two.

He didn’t let on during the week about which of his three Preakness entrants—Oxbow, Will Take Charge or Titletown Five—was his best, unless you listened closely.

It was even harder to tell from watching the trio train.

Will Take Charge, the 17-plus hand chestnut with plenty of chrome high and low, looked good but not great.

Same for Oxbow, who some said looked phenomenal at Churchill Downs before finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby while others said looked absolutely terrible. He didn’t impress much at Pimlico either, not with the likes of Orb and Departing stealing the prerace show.

Many said Titletown Five looked over the top, and turns out they were right based on the way finished up the track.

Oxbow benefitted from another vintage performance in the Preakness—a great ride from recently unretired Hall of Famer Gary Stevens—and upset the race and spoiled any chances NYRA would have at a six-figure crowd in three weeks for the Belmont Stakes.

The Awesome Again colt also became the 14th classic winner trained by Lukas, who came into the Preakness tied with legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons for most in a career. Ever-respectful of the game’s history, Lukas talked about what it meant to pass Fitzsimmons and become the all-time leader. He never met Fitzsimmons, who trained for the ancestors of the same Phipps family that bred and owns Orb, but knows what a “very special man in this industry” he was.

Woods, the man Lukas now seems comparable to in his respective sport, is also chasing a legend in his game, the incomparable Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors. Woods needs four more majors to tie, but hasn’t won one since the U.S. Open in 2008 at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

Nearly everyone in the game of golf left Woods for dead in the wake of another surgery and following his extra-marital affair scandal back in 2009.

Lukas was essentially left for dead the last 10 years, without a classic win since Commendable won the Belmont in 2000 and only one Breeders’ Cup win—that coming in the now defunct Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint in 2012—to add to his record haul of 19 victories earned from 1985 to 2005.

Stevens wasn’t aboard for any of Lukas’ 19 Breeders’ Cup wins, but now has teamed with the man they used to call “The King” for four classic wins—Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Derby and Belmont, and now Oxbow in the Preakness.

“When I won on Skyring [in the Dixie], … you don’t know what kind of boost that gave me going into the Preakness,” Stevens said. “And it was for Wayne Lukas. I thought to myself, ‘man, this guy, it doesn’t matter what the form looks like on a horse.’ You go out there with confidence, and you can throw an upset.”

Even while he said “you guys have been great all week,” in reference to the media, Lukas couldn’t resist one more haymaker toward the end of his post-race press conference.

The opportunity came when asked if he could delay heading out of town from 4:30 a.m. Sunday to a bit later in the morning.

“Some of us in this great nation get up and get after it in the morning; others sleep in,” he punched.

He earlier said he was leaving at that hour to make the more than 600-mile trip from Pimlico to his base at Churchill Downs in Louisville, a trip that might take 13 hours with “about two Wendy’s stops on the way.”

Two Wendy’s stops on one trip?

Either it’s really convenient or Lukas really likes the cheeseburgers and fries. Maybe now the fast-food chance will come calling for Lukas to be their pitchman and “The King” can get even closer to resembling Tiger.

 

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