At 2 a.m. on a Saturday in late March, trainer D. Wayne Lukas pulled out of Hot Springs and began the long drive in the dark to New Orleans, where he would saddle the thoroughbred Titletown Five for the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.
One of the owners of Titletown Five is Paul Hornung, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who grew up in Louisville, Ky.
Hornung won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and played on four of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams in Green Bay.
Titletown Five made a bid for the lead at the half-mile pole that day before fading badly in the stretch.
After the race, the 77-year-old Lukas got back in his car and returned to Hot Springs so he could train his horses at Oaklawn Park early the next morning.
It was just another day — another long day — at the office for the man they call The Coach.
The fact that one of the most famous thoroughbred trainers in history makes Arkansas his winter and early spring base speaks volumes about the national prominence Oaklawn now enjoys in its new golden era. While he no longer was receiving the media attention he once did (prior to Saturday’s running of the Preakness Stakes, that is), few trainers work harder than the aging Lukas.
On March 16 — as a crowd of 33,963 looked on at Oaklawn with the sun shining down — Lukas stablemates Will Take Charge and Oxbow finished first and second respectively in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes, the key prep race for the Arkansas Derby.
“I was feeling pretty good 100 yards from the wire,” Lukas said after the race. “The competition was so tough. The hill gets a little steeper from this point.”
Will Take Charge had won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but he fell to sixth in the Southwest Stakes on Presidents’ Day on a wet track. Lukas joked after Will Take Charge won the Rebel: “Will Take Charge is a fair-weather horse. He said he didn’t feel like running in the rain last time.”
Veteran Jon Court was aboard Will Take Charge in the Rebel.
Aboard Oxbow that day was another veteran jockey, Mike Smith.
Oxbow ran in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, finishing a disappointing fifth with 50-year-old Gary Stevens aboard. Oxbow competed three weeks later in the Kentucky Derby, finishing sixth.
Oxbow, owned by the legendary Calumet Farm of Kentucky, then shocked the racing world this past Saturday in Baltimore with a wire-to-wire win in the Preakness. Kentucky Derby winner Orb had been the heavy favorite coming into the race.
Oxbow was a 15-1 longshot.
“I get paid to spoil dreams,” Lukas said. “You can’t mail ’em in. It’s a different surface and a different time. You gotta line ’em up and win ’em.”
Calumet, Lukas and Stevens represent racing royalty.
Consider Lukas’ resume:
— He has trained 24 Eclipse Award winners, including greats such as Althea, Azeri and Winning Colors.
— He has trained three Horse of the Year honorees — Lady’s Secret in 1986, Criminal Type in 1990 and Charismatic in 1999.
— He has won 14 Triple Crown races, surpassing “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons on the list of Triple Crown winning trainers with the Preakness win on Saturday. That record includes four Kentucky Derby wins, six Preakness Stakes wins and four Belmont Stakes victories.
— He once won five consecutive Triple Crown races, beginning with the Preakness in 1994 and ending with the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when he sent out five horses and won it with Grindstone.
— He became the all-time money winner among thoroughbred trainers in 1988. He was the first trainer to top $100 million and $200 million in stakes earnings.
— He has saddled more than 40 Kentucky Derby starters.
Last year when Lukas got Optimizer into the Kentucky Derby at the last moment, longtime Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg wrote: “The battle lines leap to mind in a rush of memory — Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — linked together as closely as second skins in a pantheon of confrontations where each heartbeat combines a lot of Ahab and a lot of the White Whale. Here in ‘Weep No More’ city, year after year for a long time, it was always D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.”
Izenberg went on to describe Lukas as “racing’s lion in winter” and said: “The white heat of his competitor’s heart burns so fiercely you could light downtown Louisville with it for a month.”
Stevens ended a seven-year retirement in January and won his third Preakness. He already had three Kentucky Derby and three Belmont Stakes victories.
“At 50 years old, after seven years of retirement, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Stevens said. “This is super, super sweet, and it happened for the right guy. All the stars were aligned. It’s even more special winning it for Wayne Lukas and his team.”
Stevens was riding for Lukas when the jockey won his first Triple Crown race aboard filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Stevens had last won a Triple Crown race aboard Point Given in the Belmont Stakes in 2001.
“He supported me,” Stevens said of Lukas. “He was the first guy to call me up. He said, ‘I’m going to have a colt for you. His name is Oxbow.'”
Lukas had not won a Triple Crown event since saddling Commendable in the 2000 Belmont.
Shug McGaughey, Orb’s trainer, said of Lukas: “When Wayne wasn’t going good, he was still the first guy out on his pony. The guy is a credit to racing. He’s always upbeat and optimistic.”
Lukas had three of the nine horses in the Preakness (Will Take Charge finished seventh and Titletown Five finished ninth). He said of breaking the tie with Fitzsimmons for Triple Crown victories: “I shared that record with a very special name. If I never broke it, I was proud of that. But I’m also proud to have it.”
Calumet, meanwhile, has produced:
— Two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.
— Eight Kentucky Derby winners. In addition to Whirlaway and Citation, there were Pensive in 1944, Ponder in 1949, Hill Gail in 1952, Iron Liege in 1957, Tim Tam in 1958 and Forward Pass in 1968.
— Eight Preakness winners.
— 11 horses in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Alydar, Armed, Bewitch, Citation, Coaltown, Davona Dale, Real Delight, Twilight Tear, Two Lea, Tim Tam and Whirlaway.
— Two trainers in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame — Ben. A Jones and H.A. “Jimmy” Jones.
— Five Horse of the Year titles — Whirlaway in 1941 and 1942, Twilight Tear in 1944 (the first filly ever to be voted Horse of the Year), Armed in 1947 and Citation in 1948.
The 762-acre breeding and training farm was established in Lexington in 1924 by William Monroe Wright, the owner of Calumet Baking Powder Co. The farm initially bred and raced standardbred horses. Wright’s son Warren took over in 1932 and changed the focus to thoroughbreds. The first stakes winner came in 1933 when Hadagal won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in New York.
Some of the finest thoroughbreds in history would go on to wear Calumet’s devil red and blue silks. Ben A. Jones came on board as trainer in 1939, and Whirlaway gave Calumet its first Kentucky Derby victory two years later, just months before the U.S. entry into World War II.
By 1947, the farm had become the first ever to exceed $1 million in purse earnings. After Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, jockey Eddie Arcaro described him as the best horse he ever rode.
Ben Jones passed away in 1961, and his son Jimmy retired in 1964. Calumet had only 20 stakes winners from 1964-77. In 1976, John Veitch, whose father Sylvester had been a Hall of Fame trainer, was hired. Veitch was the trainer of Alydar in 1978 when the sport saw perhaps its greatest rivalry as Alydar finished just behind Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
By the 1980s, Calumet was in serious decline.
Alydar died in 1990, and the farm went into bankruptcy soon after that. In 1992, Calumet was put on the auction block. It seemed that an iconic name in racing history was about to die.
Mismanagement and fraud had gone on for years. In 2000, former Calumet president J.T. Lundy and former chief financial officer Gary Matthews were convicted of fraud and bribery and sent to prison.
Enter businessman Henryk de Kwiatkowski, a Polish-born Canadian citizen with a deep love of racing and its traditions.
When he heard of the auction, he quickly flew to Lexington, arriving less than an hour before the sale began. He became the Calumet owner following a $17 million bid. Within weeks, his employees were repairing the white fences and mowing the lush grass, returning Calumet to its former beauty.
Following de Kwiatkowski’s death in 2003, the farm remained in a trust controlled by family members.
Last year, the Calumet Investment Group bought the farm from the trust for more than $36 million and leased it to Bowling Green, Ky., native Brad Kelley. He’s the fourth-largest landowner in the country with more than 1.7 million acres of ranching land in Texas, New Mexico and Florida.
As for Lukas, his story is well-known to racing enthusiasts. He was born on Sept. 2, 1935, in Wisconsin. He taught high school and coached basketball for nine years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin.
Lukas began training quarter horses in California in 1968. During the next decade, he trained 24 world championship quarter horses before switching to thoroughbreds.
Now, the “lion in in winter” has returned Calumet and jockey Gary Stevens to the racing spotlight.