Rex Nelson: Limelight Return for D. Wayne Lukas

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UPDATE: Lukas’ horse Oxbow wins the Preakness! 

At 2 a.m. on a Saturday several weeks ago, trainer D. Wayne Lukas pulled out of Hot Springs and began the long drive to New Orleans, where he saddled 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 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. The fact that one of the most famous trainers in history now makes Arkansas his winter and early spring base speaks volumes about the national prominence Oaklawn enjoys in this new golden era. While he no longer receives the media attention he once did, few trainers work harder than the aging Lukas. And this spring holds the potential for his return to racing’s limelight.

Back 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 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.

The next morning, Lukas announced that he would separate his prize 3-year-olds for their next Kentucky Derby prep. Oxbow will run in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13, while Will Take Charge will run in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., that same day. With his wins in the Smarty Jones and the Rebel, Will Take Charge earned 60 points in the system that’s being used this year to determine Kentucky Derby starters. He has guaranteed himself a spot at Churchill Downs on May 4.

Oxbow, owned by the legendary Calumet Farm of Kentucky, earned 20 points in the Rebel for a total of 36 points. Prior to finishing second in the Rebel, Oxbow had shipped twice from his Hot Springs base to the Fair Grounds, finishing fourth in the Grade 2 Risen Star and winning the Grade 3 Lecomte.

“He has shipped a couple of times,” Lukas told the Daily Racing Form when he made the final decision to run the horse in the Arkansas Derby. “He has a lot of seasoning. He doesn’t need to find out if he can travel and run. We know he can. And he’s a tough little rascal that needs probably another race just to keep him on the ground so he doesn’t hit orbit.”

Calumet and Lukas represent racing royalty. For those of us who are traditionalists, it would be nice to see them team up and win a Kentucky Derby.

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 13 Triple Crown races, tying him with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. That record includes four Kentucky Derbys, five Preakness Stakes and four Belmont Stakes.
  • He once won five consecutive Triple Crown races, beginning with the Preakness in 1994 and ending with the 1996 Kentucky Derby.
  • 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, longtimeNewark 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.”

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.
  • Seven Preakness Stakes 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, Twight 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 at 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.

Wouldn’t it be something if the “lion in winter” were to return Calumet to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle for the first time in 45 years? The next stop on Calumet’s road to Louisville comes a week from Saturday at Oaklawn.

Editor’s note: Both Oxbow and Will Take Charge have made the field of horses in the Kentucky Derby – Oxbow with opening odds of 30-1, and Will Take Charge with 20-1.

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