Rex Nelson: Oaklawn Park – D. Wayne Lukas Ready for ‘National Treasure’


Rex Nelson Archive PageThey’ll begin another race meet at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs on Friday and, by early January standards, the temperatures will be relatively mild.

Had the races started a few days earlier, the track might have been frozen. The first weekend of the Oaklawn meet often has been accompanied by winter weather, but temperatures in the 50s this weekend should bring out the crowds for corned beef sandwiches and racing.

The weather was not good Wednesday night, but several hundred people turned out at the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel in downtown North Little Rock to hear from Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. The fact that Lukas would attract such a crowd on an evening when roads in many parts of the state were icy says a great deal about the state of the sport in Arkansas at a time when thoroughbred racing continues its long, steady decline in other parts of the country.

To put it simply, thoroughbred racing still matters in Arkansas.

Lukas is in a better position than most people to appreciate that since he has been a part of the industry for so many years. We share the same birthday. I turned 54 back on Sept. 2. Lukas, who still approaches the sport with the energy of a man in his 40s, turned 78.

“I love my job,” he said. “I’m the envy of every working man in America. I’m not going anywhere.”

The Wisconsin native has won more Triple Crown races than any other trainer with 14 (he’s captured the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes four times) and has more Breeders’ Cup wins than any other trainer with 19. He has had an amazing sports career, having worked nine years as a high school basketball coach before he began training quarter horses in California in 1968. Lukas already had become a legend in the quarter horse industry when he made the switch to thoroughbreds in 1978. 

I was at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday of May 1988 when Lukas won his first Kentucky Derby with a filly, Winning Colors. He told the story Wednesday night of a group of drunken college boys who screamed at him from the infield as he walked Winning Colors over from the barn.

“Hey Lukas, the fillies ran yesterday,” they screamed, referring to the Kentucky Oaks for fillies, which is run on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby. Lukas, by the way, has trained the Oaks winner four times.

After having won the race, Lukas was walking Winning Colors back to the barn and looked over at the college boys.

“We were with you all the way,” one yelled.

Those who follow racing nationwide should take heed when Lukas says this: “Arkansas has something special going on here. Something happens here that’s now missing at a lot of other tracks. You have real fans here.”

Lukas laments the fact that the sport “got soft all over the country. We become too confident that people would keep coming to the track.”

When headed to the winner’s circle to have his photo taken, he often picks a young person out of the stands and takes that boy or girl with him, hopefully creating a fan for life.

“We have to reach out more,” Lukas said. “We have to bring in new people.”

Lukas believes Oaklawn could serve as an example for other tracks. The track on Central Avenue at Hot Springs is still a place for family outings, a spot where the food and the chance to visit with friends is just as much a part of the experience as the betting. Lukas calls Hot Springs “a national treasure,” a place where a day at the races is a social event worth getting dressed up for. That is unlike any other racing town in America with the exception of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

Lukas also talked about the competitive nature of the owners who run their horses at Oaklawn. Arkansas has a number of highly successful businessmen such as Joe Ford and Frank Fletcher. They’re men who dived headfirst into the racing game after making their fortunes elsewhere. Fletcher makes no secret of the fact that one of his top goals in life is to be the owner of an Arkansas Derby winner.

“Going to the races is part of the culture of this state,” Lukas said of Arkansas. “There’s a genuine enthusiasm for the game that’s hard to find elsewhere. Look at the average daily attendance at Oaklawn. It’s higher than most of the other tracks.”

Lukas likes that he can walk into a Waffle House in Hot Springs and have people come up and talk racing. That doesn’t always happen in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. But Lukas doesn’t make Arkansas his winter base these days just for sentimental reasons. There are sound business reasons, also.

“I really like the 3-year-old program they have here,” he said. “You look back over the past decade and you’ll notice that Oaklawn has had a major player each year in the Triple Crown races. I’ve personally had great success coming through here. You can send your 3-year-olds from here to Kentucky and race on similar surfaces.”

Last year, the Lukas-trained 3-year-old Will Take Charge won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday before falling to sixth in the Southwest Stakes on Presidents’ Day on a wet track. On March 16, as a crowd of 33,963 looked on, Lukas stablemates Will Take Charge and Oxbow finished first and second respectively in the $600,000 Rebel Stakes.

Oxbow was back on the track for the Arkansas Derby on April 13 with 50-year-old Gary Stevens aboard. The horse was the favorite but drew an outside post position, finishing a disappointing fifth. Oxbow drew the No. 2 post position in the Kentucky Derby. He led the race at one point but faded late, finishing sixth, six lengths behind winner Orb. Two weeks later in the Preakness, though, Oxbow and Stevens gave Lukas his first Triple Crown winner in 13 years. It was Stevens’ first Triple Crown win since 2001 and the first Triple Crown victory for owner Calumet Farm in 45 years.

Oxbow suffered a soft tissue injury in the Haskell Invitational last summer and was retired to stud in October.

Will Take Charge will race as a 4-year-old this year. After the Smarty Jones and Rebel wins at Oaklawn, Will Take Charge went on to win the Travers Stakes, the Clark Handicap and the Pennsylvania Derby, earning almost $3 million as a 3-year-old. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Will Take Charge fell just a nose short of Mucho Macho Man.

Will Take Charge had finished eighth in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, seventh in the nine-horse Preakness field and 10th in the 14-horse field at Belmont. After the Triple Crown races, things began to fall Will Take Charge’s way. He won by a nose over Moreno in the Travers at Saratoga with jockey Luis Saez aboard for the first time. Several week later, he defeated Moreno in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Last month, it was announced that Three Chimneys Farm had secured a 50 percent interest in Will Take Charge from Willis Horton of Marshall. Horton will retain 50 percent ownership. Will Take Charge, a favorite for the Eclipse Award for the best 3-year-old male of 2013, will run one last campaign for Lukas before retiring to stud. Will Take Charge also is among the three finalists for the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year along with Mucho Macho Man and Wise Dan. Eclipse Award winners will be announced on Saturday, Jan. 18, at the 43rd annual Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

“Will Take Charge had a magnificent year, and I’m hopeful that he will receive consideration for year-end awards,” Lukas said. “He has it all – physical presence, toughness, talent and one of the best pedigrees in the book. This deal is a true win-win. I get to keep a special horse in training for some great clients, and the fans get to enjoy Will Take Charge for another year.”

Will Take Charge has been training at Oaklawn since the middle of December. Lukas said he’s looking at running the 4-year-old in the Donn at Gulfstream in Florida or in the Santa Anita Handicap in California. The $500,000 Donn will be run Feb. 8, and the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap will be run March 8.

Lukas has a 44-horse stable at Oaklawn. He’s particularly excited about 3-year-old Strong Mandate, who won the Hopeful last year at Saratoga and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 2. Lukas plans to run Strong Mandate in the Southwest on Feb. 17. If things go as planned, Lukas would then run the horse in the Rebel on March 15, the Arkansas Derby on April 12 and the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

“The races are well spaced out, so my top 3-year-old won’t be going anywhere,” Lukas said. “We have some other 3-year-olds that could be ready by April.”

As far as Will Take Charge’s 4-year-old campaign, Lukas said: “I think he will be better at 4 than he was at 3.”

Asked to elaborate on Strong Mandate, Lukas smiled and said: “He’s pretty special. I think he’s going to have a big year.”

During his speech earlier in the evening, Lukas noted that the one thing he hasn’t accomplished is winning a Triple Crown. He said he has a watch at home with the silks of the 11 Triple Crown winners on each hour.

“There’s one spot left,” he said. “I would like to see one of my silks on that watch.”

One of these days, there will be another Triple Crown winner. Wouldn’t it be something if that thoroughbred had spent the winter and early spring in Hot Springs?

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