BALTIMORE — D. Wayne Lukas knows his fillies. He won the 1988 Kentucky Derby with Winning Colors and made champions out of Lady’s Secret, Serena’s Song, Althea and Life’s Magic.
Lukas, 86, fits this old racetrack like a well-worn saddle. His Stetson cocked just so, his fringed chaps and his pony on the end of a tether are familiar sights in the stakes barn.
The filly on his arm in his latest Preakness Stakes attempt, Secret Oath, will be the 46th horse saddled by Lukas for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. No one has had more.
Six times he has won the Preakness Stakes. After his first Preakness victory, in 1980, Lukas was introduced to American sports fans as the villain. His colt Codex beat the Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk — a filly — in a roughly ridden race.
“I turned out to be the bad guy,” Lukas said. “Before the race, I was the unknown guy, some cowboy who came in here and brought a horse. That was the story. After the race, half of America thought I was a bad guy. All the women.”
The bad guy, however, turned into a pretty good horse trainer and even more compelling character for a sport whose real stars cannot speak for themselves.
Lukas was the Gordon Gekko of the shed row with hundreds of horses spread across multiple states, his barns manned by young, educated assistants to ensure he was represented at the richest races on any given day.
He had a Rolls-Royce and private jet. Looked GQ-cool in his $3,000 suits and beamed a Hollywood smile from the country’s winner’s circles alongside an eclectic group of owners — the rapper MC Hammer, the San Diego Chargers owner Eugene Klein, W.T. Young, whose peanut butter brand eventually became Jif.
They all had one thing in common: deep pockets. Lukas was a master at persuading them to use what was in those pockets to compete with the sheikhs and Irish sports-betting impresarios for the finest horse flesh at public auctions. From 1980 to 2000, his horses won 13 Triple Crown races, and everyone in horse racing knew Lukas’s nickname: “D. Wayne off the plane.”
The aughts were tough on the Old Coach, a nickname preferred by assistants who knew of Lukas’s onetime career as a high school basketball coach. Many of his owners left the sport — or the earth altogether. Lukas closed his stable in California and made do from Kentucky with a compact group of 50 horses.
In 2013, however, a colt named Oxbow landed him in the Preakness winner’s circle once more, ending a 13-year drought in one of the Triple Crown races for Lukas and moving him past Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons as the most successful trainer in the American classic races.
“Now, I’m the old man off the van,” Lukas said at the time, referring to how he rode shotgun from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore in Oxbow’s horse transport.
Bob Baffert, another iconoclastic trainer, has since surpassed Lukas in Triple Crown event victories with 16. He is serving a 90-day suspension meted out by Kentucky authorities after the apparent winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test.
This year’s Derby winner — the 80-1 shot Rich Strike — is AWOL as well, after his owner Rick Dawson and the trainer Eric Reed decided the colt would be best served with a longer rest before his next race (most likely at the Belmont Stakes on June 11).
So, Lukas is once more a headliner. His co-star, fittingly, is a filly named Secret Oath.
The daughter of Arrogate, Secret Oath won emphatically enough in the Kentucky Oaks that Lukas decided she had earned an opportunity to try to become just the seventh filly to win the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“If she would put the Preakness on her résumé, it’s going to take her to another level,” Lukas said. “The media members will start thinking of her as one of the really good ones. If we can pull it off, it will be exceptional for her.”
The opportunity to return to the limelight has clearly been life-affirming for Lukas.
After Secret Oath’s victory in the Oaks, Lukas was swarmed beneath the twin spires by former assistants ecstatic for their Hall of Fame boss. They are a formidable bunch: Todd Pletcher (like Lukas, a Hall of Famer), Dallas Stewart and Mike Maker are stalwarts in the sport’s biggest races.
Lukas has always likened his operation to a cross between a McDonald’s franchise and an athletic program, emphasizing consistency as well as developing talent. His New York operation followed the same regimens and protocols as his California stable. At the end of each day, for example, the dirt surrounding his barns was raked in the same herringbone pattern.
“In racing, there’s no how‑to book,” he said. “If you get Nick Saban up here from Alabama and he’s got a room full of coaches, all top Division I coaches, he will go to the blackboard and diagram everything they do on offense and defense, share it with every guy in the room.
“But in racing, you can’t go and find it in the library,” Lukas continued. “There’s no book. There’s no way to look it up.”
Early on, however, Lukas bucked the norms of the often secretive and paranoid culture of the backstretch.
“The basketball coach came out in me a little bit, and we really recruited good guys, wonderful young men,” he said. “And we decided that we would teach and share with them.”
Lukas’s coaching tree was plenty impressive for the owners of Secret Oath, Rob and Stacy Mitchell.
“See what I’m saying?” Rob Mitchell asked. “He hasn’t forgotten how to train a horse.”
The hallmark of Lukas’s career has been a passion for his work. He is at the barn at 4 each morning and atop his pony until all of his horses have been put through their paces. Vacations do not exist.
Lukas is the first to admit that this single-mindedness has cost him. He is on his fifth marriage.
“When you got passion for something, you’ll stay up all night, go without food, drive, sleep, whatever to get where you want to go,” Lukas said. “When you have these fillies that show up in your life, like this one or a colt, it’s such an incentive and drive for me.”
From Gordon Gekko to forgotten, from D. Wayne off the plane to old man off the van, Lukas has been a consistent sort. He wants to command the sport’s biggest stages.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “Filly. Colt. Government mule. I don’t care. I’m here to win the thing.”