Secret Oath soars in Kentucky Oaks

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D. Wayne Lukas likes to joke that he’s made a career running horses where they don’t belong.

Luis Saez enjoys his Kentucky Oaks win aboard Secret Oath. Coady photo

Such sentiment only seems half true, perhaps only for the latter parts of the Hall of Fame trainer’s career that includes scores of classic and Grade 1 victories. The 86-year-old Lukas added to his legend Friday in the Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks, winning it for the fifth time and first in more than three decades only this time with a filly that belonged. And belonged in a big way.

Secret Oath gave Lukas that fifth Oaks victory in front of 100,188, storming from off the pace under Luis Saez in a mild upset many predicted could happen this winter while the daughter of Arrogate ran roughshod over her division at Oaklawn Park. The confidence in Secret Oath waned a bit in recent weeks – at least from the public, press and punters but not in her connections – after a troubled third against males in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.

Lukas never wavered and Rob and Stacy Mitchell, who bred the filly and raised her at their 90-acre Briland Farm in Lexington, stayed confident. Secret Oath did the rest, winning by 2 lengths over Nest as the 4-1 co-third choice in the field of 14. She and Saez rallied from eighth after the opening half-mile to first run down last year’s champion and unbeaten Echo Zulu then edge away in the lane to hold off the late runs of Ashland winner and 2-1 favorite Nest, Santa Anita Oaks winner Desert Dawn and the unbeaten graded stakes winner Kathleen O.

“It feels great; but I’ve said all week … when we win the first one, we think it’s us and we get all puffed up and we think we’ve really done something,” said Lukas, winning the Oaks for the first time since Seaside Attraction in 1990 and his 220th Grade 1 victory. “After you win one, … the real satisfaction is when you can put these people that work with these horses and raise them and so forth in that position.

“That’s always been our M.O. going into it. After we won that first one Blush With Pride, then you think, ‘boy, we did everything.’ But the real joy of doing this is to let these owners have the opportunity to enjoy this and get that thrill. And I’m really thankful for the opportunity to train for you.”

Secret Oath’s victory in 1:49.44 for the 9-furlong Oaks provided the backdrop to surreal scene for Lukas, who dominated racing in the 1980s and 90s with a brash, outspoken and combative style. Much of that remains – that’s evident when he provides a sermon outside his barn or from atop his pony ridden alongside his trainees every morning to this day – but he’s seen by many now in a grandfatherly or mentor-like role.

Fellow Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who sent out Nest to her runner-up finish and Lukas’ most successful protégés, was one of the first to meet the “Coach” in the tunnel after the Oaks. They exchanged a few words and a hug, captured of course on video and blasted out to the masses on social media.

“That’s how it goes with all those guys that worked side by side with us and with me,” Lukas said. “He waited in the tunnel. He’s second. He waits in the tunnel, hugged me, said he couldn’t be prouder. I said I’m proud of you. We hugged, exchanged a few other words, very personal.

“But those guys that were so influential in my career and carried me to where we are today, they put me on their shoulders and carried me. And I know it. I couldn’t do it alone. I never could with all the horses we were training. So we’re still very tight. It’s a close‑knit family. We were in the box with Dallas Stewart. He almost broke my arm when the horse got right to the sixteenth pole. … We got some great, great friendships going because of these horses.”

Pletcher, trying to win his second straight Oaks and fifth overall to move out of a tie with Lukas and into a tie for the most ever with Woody Stephens, took it like anyone who even casually knows him would expect.

“I’m really happy for Wayne,” Pletcher said. “If I couldn’t win this race, I was rooting for him.”

Now Lukas sits tied with Stephens, who he famously verbally sparred with during the 1988 Triple Crown series and after winning the Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors. Lukas collected his first four Oaks wins in a nine-year span – with Blush With Pride in 1982, Lucky Lucky Lucky in 1984, Open Mind in 1989 and Seaside Attraction in 1990.

He’s won 14 Triple Crown races, too, from the first with Codex in the 1980 Preakness to Oxbow in the 2013 Preakness.

The Mitchells, who sell about three-quarters of the foals they breed and raise while keeping the others to race, trusted Lukas with Secret Oath and other homebreds because of his record with horses and horsemen.

“So I look at Wayne and I said: Who has he trained? Todd Pletcher. Dallas Stewart. Mark Hennig. Kiaran McLauglin. Who else? Who have I missed? Randy Bradshaw,” Rob Mitchell said, reminded by Lukas that Mike Maker could also be on the list. “Okay, and Dallas Stewart trained Brad Cox. Now, in your mind – I won’t mention any names – pick three trainers in your mind and name five trainers that they trained. …See what I’m saying? He hasn’t forgotten how to train a horse.”

The Mitchells famously almost sold Secret Oath at the 2020 Keeneland September sale but withdrew the filly because of lack of interest from buyers. Out of their stakes winning, multiple graded-stakes placed and $607,747-earner Absinthe Minded, Secret Oath banked $705,250 to more than double her earnings to $1,295,417.

“We’re very blessed that the clouds and the heavens worked out just right and she didn’t sell for a reason,” Stacy Mitchell said. “And here we are today.”