Best of The Special: Lukas the storyteller

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Editors Note: We’re wrapping up the 23rd year of The Special with some moments from the meet. You can find the complete editions from 2023 here.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas organized some trainees in the rain at Saratoga this summer. Linzay Marks photo

Fill it Up. The Outside Rail, By Sean Clancy. August 7 edition.
D. Wayne Lukas guffawed after telling a story Thursday morning. Behind an immaculate desk inside his paneled office, window blinds closed tighter than a stakeout, the Hall of Fame trainer threw his head back, pitching his cowboy hat like the top end of a seesaw.

“We’ve got stories to fill your whole paper,” the Hall of Fame trainer said.

I couldn’t tell if it was a warning or a promise while hoping for the latter. Stories are what we’re looking for during a six-in-a-row spree of paper writing.

I had already been in his office for at least a half-hour, listening to his advice to NYRA starter Hector Soler (A horse can’t have three masters, one at his head, one on his back and one behind him) and embarking on our first Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour with Lukas.

The tape – I know it’s not tape anymore –had been rolling for 14 minutes as his wife Laurie patiently sat in a chair and listened. Surely, she had heard all the stories and knew Lukas was offering anything but a warning.

Thirty-three minutes later, my Olympus digital recorder beeped once, twice, three times. Memory full. Lukas didn’t notice. Didn’t draw breath. It was a promise.

And for all my loyal readers, yeah, I let the recorder roll.

“We decided to run Lady’s Secret in the Whitney. Now Lady’s Secret weighed 700 pounds soaking wet. She was a little, ratty looking thing. Nick Zito has this horse and he’s got him in the Whitney. He’s new to the game. This was years ago of course.

“He says, ‘I go over there, I want everything to be perfect. I’m standing there in the paddock, I’m so nervous, I can’t hardly saddle, I look in the next stall and there’s Lady’s Secret. Jeff Lukas is reading the Racing Form. He’s not even paying attention. I saddle my horse. I get the rider up. I said, I better go out and see how he warms up, I want to make sure he warms him up properly and everything goes smooth. I’m racing through the crowd, and I glance over to my left and Jeff Lukas is at the hot dog stand fixing himself a hot dog. I knew right there and then we were going to get our ass kicked. I’m washing out and he’s over there fixing a hot dog.’

“That’s how Jeff was, too. He was so sure of himself. The Whitney made her Horse of the Year. She went into the conversation when she won the Whitney. She was something else.

“I bred her. I had the ranch there in Oklahoma. We bought Great Lady M after one of my clients passed away. My favorite horse was Secretariat like everybody else so I thought I would breed her to Secretariat.

“I fly into the ranch and they tell me Great Lady M foaled. I go look at the foal and I’m just sick. I thought, ‘Oh my God, how could this be? How could I breed to Secretariat and get a foal like this?’ She was so skinny and ratty and small. I thought, ‘What in the world?’ She never flourished.

“When she got a little older, Gene Klein said he wanted to have some babies out in the front of the yard. said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ He owned the Chargers, he lived in Rancho Santa Fe. I said, ‘I’ve got a couple of babies. I’ll sell you this little gray filly and another one. I’ll get them appraised.’ ‘No. No. Just price them. I trust you.’ I said, ‘OK, wiseguy, I’ll take $200,000 a piece.’ He said, ‘Done. Get ’em.’

“The first one he names Gene’s Lady. Look her up, she made $946,000. Just short of a million dollars. The other one is this little ratty gray thing and he names her Lady’s Secret.

“She grew up. I raced her every time there was a race. I didn’t care if it was two weeks apart, three weeks apart, six weeks apart. We entered. You try that now, the way they’re breeding them…

“I told Jeff to take her to Bay Meadows. I said, ‘We’ve got to protect Gene a little bit here, he gave 200 thousand for her. We don’t want to throw him under the bus with this one.’ So, he gets in the trailer and takes her to Bay Meadows, at least she’ll break her maiden. There weren’t cell phones back then so he stops at a truck stop on the way back. I said, ‘What happened there?’ He said, ‘Dad, you wouldn’t believe it, she run right off the screen. It was unreal.’ I said, ‘Come on.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, she looked like a racehorse.’ I said, ‘That must have been a bunch of muskrats chasing her.’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I think you better be a little careful here.’

After that she just won, won, won, wherever we took her. It was fun to have her.”

The stories flowed from there. The fastest horse he ever trained. His best training job. His worst training job. The biggest overachiever. His most favorite win.

“We’ve got stories to fill your whole paper.”

We’ll be back tomorrow with another edition. 

Wayne’s World: The fast life with Dash For Cash, Landaluce and others in stacked barn. August 8 edition.

As promised…stories with D. Wayne Lukas.

The Special’s Sean Clancy sat down with the Hall of Fame trainer last week for a Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour. The tour began with Lukas’ Saratoga string this summer (see Friday’s edition) before rolling all the way back when Lukas was training Quarter Horses. Enjoy.

Who was the fastest horse you trained?
“The fastest horse was Dash For Cash. The Quarter Horse. He would have won the Hopeful, anything up to a mile. He was out of a straight Thoroughbred mare. He stood 16.2 maybe. He wasn’t a chunk, wasn’t muscled up. He looked like a good-looking Thoroughbred. If I led him out here and you looked at him and anything in the barn, you’d say, ‘Boy, I like that chestnut horse.’ He had a beautiful mind, a great mind.

“He was a good 2-year-old. Bubba Cascio had him as a 2-year-old and they shipped him to me when he was turning 3 at Los Alamitos (in 1976). He was the only horse I’ve ever trained that I could say I never thought he would get beat. I’d drop him in the entry box, and I’d just tell the guys, ‘Buckle your seatbelts because you’re in trouble here.’ He was something else.

“At Los Alamitos the one hole became the kiss of death. They couldn’t win from the one hole. Everybody had all kinds of theories, the tractor didn’t run over it, the harrow was wider and everything else. In the Champion of Champions, where the 10 best horses in the world are invited. They draw the race and right out of the box, Dash For Cash, number one. They started clapping and whooping and hollering. They said, ‘We’ve got his ass now.’ The gate opens, he broke and set a new world’s record for 440 yards. If you see the picture, he wins by 3 1/2, 4 lengths. He went right down the one hole like he owned it.

“He was really a good horse. Unbelievable to train, quiet, easy to saddle, good gate horse, obviously. If I took him over to Hollywood Park, any five-eighths race, six-furlong race, I would have bet on him. They couldn’t beat him. There was talk of matching him and the owners didn’t want to do it. He was one of a kind. He changed the breeding. Unreal.”

The fastest Thoroughbred?
“I’d say Landaluce (1982 champion 2-year-old filly) was the fastest Thoroughbred. Angel Cordero and I flew into L.A. from a stake in New York. I told Cordero, ‘I’ve got a filly that I’m really high on and I’m going to work her. I think she’s really special. I’ll hold her until 8 or 9 o’clock.’ We check into the hotel; he comes around about 8 o’clock. I said, ‘Now, look, I know you think you’re God’s gift to the racing world, but be careful here. This is her first half-mile. I don’t want her to go too fast. Don’t be shaking the trees.’

“He said, ‘I got it. I got it. How fast?’ I said, ‘Hit it around :48 to :49. I’ll give you a little leeway.’ He warms her up, turns her and breezes her a half-mile. I pick him up with the pony, she’s not even taking a deep breath. I said, ‘How fast did you go?’ He said, ‘Hmmmm. Maybe, I might have shaded :49, might have been around :48 and change.’ I said, ‘It looked faster than that to me.’ We go by the clocker’s tower there and I said, ‘What’d this filly go in?’ They say, ‘:44 and 3.’ I said, ‘Whoa.’ It was unreal the way she could do things.

“That Lassie race of hers is still one of the more spectacular races. All those horses come off the turn, there’s four stakes winners across the track at the quarter pole and all of a sudden she’s 21 lengths in front. They all run down there to the scales and Laffit comes back. They said, ‘Laffit, Laffit, what did you think of that?’ He looks out at the toteboard and says, ‘I think the clock malfunctioned.’ He couldn’t believe it.

“To lose her was something else. She got a blood disorder that attacks the vital organs. She lasted five days. After winning every race. She was on the NBC Nightly News when she died. She caught the imagination of the people. She was just one of those that everybody was like, ‘Wow, wait until you see this.’ That kind of horse.

“I had a little trouble with it. I vowed not to get too caught up with it. She died right in my lap, right in my arms. The barn suffered. We were leading the standings at Santa Anita, we went into a slump. It took a while for everybody to get back after losing her. Her groom had a nervous breakdown. We found him two or three mornings, he was in her stall, just in the corner, sobbing. We tried to get him some help and he just quit and went back to Mexico. It really affected him. We got everybody up and got going again, I think we won the national title that year. That was a shock. To lose her. That quick. She was buried in the infield in Hollywood. When they disbanded Hollywood, Spendthrift moved the casket to the farm and reburied her there. Her ashes were in a small casket.”

What was your best training performance?
“I can tell you the worst one a lot quicker. The worst one was Capote. I misread him terribly. He was 2-year-old champion, beat everybody in the Breeders’ Cup. He got really sick over the winter. By spring, his hair coat started to look good, he started feeling good. I said, ‘Hell, he’s 2-year-old champion, he’s going to be a Derby horse.’ He had no stamina and I misread him all the way. I did a really poor job with him. I made him 2-year-old champion, but I really didn’t do a good job with him.”

OK, how about the best?
“Maybe the best I did was Tabasco Cat. Believe it or not, the one who ran over Jeff. Here’s a horse that cost my son longevity and a great life. Yet, he got a little ratty in the gate in the (1994) Derby and finished sixth, wins the Preakness and wins the Belmont.

“In light of the way he was, the way he acted, how high strung he was, that might have been our best job right there to get him there. We almost had the Hollywood ending. He injures my son and then wins the Triple Crown. It wasn’t meant to be. Mack Miller at the time, the Hall of Famer, wrote me a letter and said I watched you train him at Belmont and it’s probably the best training job I’ve ever seen on a horse that’s that high-strung.

“I put him in the round pen the day of the race or I couldn’t hardly saddle him. He would jump and flop down on his side, roll over and slide. Everybody would watch and say, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to kill himself.’ We’d let him do that for 40 minutes, hose him off, put the bridle on him and take him to the races. He had to get that all out of his system in order to run a good race. It was a sight. He would jump in the air and flop on his side, you’d think he’d break every rib in his body.

“It was for Overbrook. My dearest friend. Bill Young. To win two legs for him. That one set the barn back, too. The help were extremely happy with Jeff. The barn got bitter. The grooms got bitter about it, ‘This son of a bitch hurt our boss.’ So, I had a meeting and called them all together. I said, ‘We are going to do it the other way. We are going to make this horse the best horse we can. We are going to pull together and make him the best horse, not the worst horse.’ At that point, Jeff was still in a coma. We did get close. Pretty close.

“Pat Day was riding him. That in itself was something. He was a perfect fit. Nobody was more laid back than Pat. And he had to be. That’s for sure. Tabasco Cat didn’t even know he was on him.”

What others do you consider the best training jobs?
“Charismatic would come close to the best training job. I couldn’t get him to break :50 as a 2-year-old (1998). Bob Lewis told me to run him for 25 [thousand]. I ran him for 62.5 and he won. Then I rolled through with winners for 62.5 again. When he won that, I was going down the steps with Jeff and I said, ‘You better hope nobody claimed this horse because he’s a little bit different.’

“Big grand-looking chestnut horse. I thought he was a dead plodder. He just started coming around. I ran him in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows and he was second. Then we ran him in the Santa Anita Derby and he was fourth. I told Bob Lewis that he was a Derby horse. He said, ‘Wayne, don’t start drinking your bathwater.’

“We decided I’d run him in the Lexington because he had no points. I got Jerry Bailey to ride him. He won pretty impressive. The next morning, I was in my office at Churchill and Jerry came in and he said, ‘Wayne, I really like that horse I rode yesterday.’ If he hadn’t taken the cash to ride Wordly Manner, he said he would have liked to ride my horse. I got pretty pumped up. About an hour later, Pat Day is standing outside my barn and I go to my car, he goes like this, he motions to me. He said, ‘That big, red horse went by us so easy, so fast, I think you’ve got a chance in the Derby.’ We started getting pumped up.

“Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, we went over late and we’re on the way into valet parking and I said, ‘I think we could win this thing today, Bo. We’re a little tougher than they think.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’re 5-2.’ I said, ‘No, that’s Cat Thief, I’m talking about the other horse.’ He said, ‘You’re 35-1.’ I said, ‘I know it, out of the two horses, I think Charismatic is the better horse.’ Sure enough, he was the best horse. Cat Thief ran third in there.”

Who was the biggest overachiever?
“Maybe Serena’s Song. She was so consistent and so solid every time. I bought her in the sale for 150 and I turned to Bob Lewis and said ‘This will be your first stakes winner.’ We were buying horses for the first time. She was tremendous. She won a lot of money, she was worth a lot of money and she produced 20-some million dollars’ worth of foals. She was a little ATM machine.

“The interesting thing there. Gary Stevens tells this on himself. She won a stake when she was 2. Gary rode her. Ron Anderson was his agent, he’s waiting in the parking lot and Ron says that filly was impressive. Gary says, ‘Draw a line through it, she’ll never win another race.’ Ron said, ‘Where’s that from?’ Gary says, ‘She can’t breathe.’

“She was making a lot of noise. I designed a bit what is now called a Serena’s Song bit, you can buy them anywhere. I should have patented it. I designed this bit for her, to keep her from displacing. It worked. She wore it her whole life and ran out $3 million. You can go to a store right now and ask for a Serena’s Song and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s this one here.’ I should have patented it. I don’t know if there’s any money selling bits. She wore that bit and won 11 Grade 1s. I think Lady’s Secret won 11. Those two horses would make a trainer’s career. That’s 22 Grade 1 stakes. Now, we’re all struggling to get one. The benchmark for trainers is to win a Grade 1 sometime in their career.”

Favorite race you ever won?
“When Grindstone won the (1996) Kentucky Derby. It was such an emotional thing because I had such a relationship with Bill Young. He was such a special person. It was an inch. We stood together and looked at each other, I said ‘I don’t know if we won or not.’ Grindstone was way out in the 10 hole and Cavonnier was way down on the rail. I said I’d go down. I’m going through the crowd and it’s about 50/50. ‘Oh, jeez, you lost a heartbreaker, Lukas.’ The other guy’s like, ‘Man, what a great win.’ I’m walking down the hall to the stairs in that 319 section and I hear this bang. Here comes Baffert’s crew, they’re hollering and screaming and hugging. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, crap, they must have put the number up.’ I get to the tunnel, and I look out and there’s no number yet. Then all of a sudden, boom, up goes his number.

“I go out and I’m on the turf course and I think I better wait for Bill. He gets there eventually, we embraced, he says some very personal and positive things that I’ll never forget. We both got very emotional. He went up to the winner’s stand and I went and got the horse. It was such a moment. Winning Colors winning the first one and all that but that one day, to pull that off for him…

“With a horse that they didn’t want to train. He had an operation in both knees, one front ankle and one hind ankle when he was 2. Bob Copelan said he would never train. I asked Bill if I could train him. Bill said sure. Copelan said you’re wasting your time. A world-renowned vet and the next thing you know I win the Derby with him.

“They’re breeding all these mares to the best horses, including Storm Cat, in the world and they get the Derby winner on a charity season that Bill Young bought at the Derby Museum to help them out. They got an Unbridled season and it had to bring $50,000. Bill Young said, ‘You can buy it on the street for 15.’ Carl Pollard said it didn’t matter. Bill gives $50,000 for it. He comes back and tells the stallion manager, ‘I gave too much for it, find a mare, use it up, don’t just flush it.’ They pick one of their lesser mares, after breeding to all the best horses, and they get a Derby winner. That shows you there is a racing God that looks out for people that do charitable things.

“I’ll tell you one last story. I go to have an interview with Bill Young. They decide they’re going to build their race stable, and I was going to be the guy. They fly me in from California. They had the accountant there, the general manager, the stud manager, the yearling manager, the pedigree man, the secretary. They’re all in this meeting. I can see everybody’s got a part in this deal. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Damn, I’m not used to this kind of a deal.’ I’ve been working on my own my whole life, I’ve never had anybody to answer to.

“We get done with the meeting and Bill Young says to me, ‘Get in the car, I want to show you the farm.’ Such a gentleman. He wanted to be like the boys, but he couldn’t, he was too stoic.

“We get in the car and we’re driving along, and I said, ‘Bill, I’m a little concerned. I’ve never worked by committee before. I usually just work alone. I’m a little concerned about all these people being involved. I don’t know just where I fit.’ He’s driving and he looks at me and says, ‘Wayne, the committee is driving the ——- car.’ I thought, ‘Good enough.’ That was the start of our relationship.”

Special thanks to Roda Ferraro of the Keeneland Library for the photos.