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Column: D. Wayne Lukas enters 50-1 shot, still can't imagine Derby going on without him
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) ' It's hard to see why four-time winner D. Wayne Lukas bothered to put a 50-1 shot named Optimizer into the Kentucky Derby.
"It's the one race where I'm always more than willing to roll the dice," Lukas said, with classic understatement.
We once joked Lukas would enter an emu, if he found one big enough to put a saddle on, just to be in the Derby. That was more than a decade ago. Not much has changed for him since.
"You've got a full field of 20 horses and they'll all be nervous. None of them have run a mile and a quarter before, let alone in front of 140,000, a large number of whom will be screaming drunks," he added. "It stirs the imagination."
But that's about all it stirs anymore. Lukas' last Derby win was in 1999 with Charismatic. He's entered nine horses since and finished in the money just once. Optimizer, the bay colt that Lukas will send to the post Saturday, is only slightly better ' one win and four top-3 finishes in nine lifetime starts.
That's the funny thing about Lukas and the Derby. Even though his legacy in Louisville was secured long ago, he simply can't imagine the race going on without him.
Three trainers who learned most of what they know about racing from working in Lukas' barns ' Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin and Mike Maker ' will be opposing him on Saturday.
Only six-time winner Ben Jones has more trophies and only H.J. "Derby Dick" Thompson has as many. None of that is coincidence. When Lukas broke in, fans of the thoroughbred game believed in magic, but he relied on cold-blooded science. They were used to folksy, but he was corporate, running cookie-cutter operations in dozens of barns from coast to coast. While every other trainer focused on quality, Lukas overwhelmed the sport by force-feeding it quantity.
Since his first Derby try in 1981, Lukas has saddled more entries, 44 coming into this race, and has had more finish out of the money (35) than Thompson had starters (24), and more than three times as many as Jones (11). He entered five horses in the 1996 race and won with Grindstone. He no longer pulls the deepest-pocketed owners and rarely gets any client's best horse. Still, one more win on the first Saturday in May would make Lukas, four months of his 77th birthday, the oldest winning trainer ever.
"You don't have enough guys with gray hair saddling horses this time around," the Hall of Famer joked standing in the paddock at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby.
He was saddling a mare named Absinthe Minded for The La Troienne. She would go on to finish fourth, extending Lukas' winless streak in graded stakes races to a mind-numbing 0-for-114. If you think any of this worries him, you do not know D. Wayne. In a sharp navy suit, set off by a pink tie and pocket square, he works his latest connections with a practiced smoothness honed over decades.
"Somebody's been very good to you," he told a client. "It shows. A reporter reminded Lukas, a one-time high school basketball coach, of something Jack Nicklaus said about wanting to leave his sport before he became "a ceremonial golfer."
"I've got a win left in me," Lukas said, "in fact, more than one. Competing at this is different. It's not just a young man's game. I don't get nervous watching them run, never have. I don't shout. I'm more ... analytical. I'm looking to see, 'Is that the stride we wanted? Are the feet positioned the way we worked on?'
"I'm learning as much as I ever did. From the bad as well as the good," Lukas said, acknowledging the lean times of late. "I still get a kick out of watching my former assistants work. There are things I pick up from them."
He has saved the best for last.
"And," Lukas said, with a smile, "I got a new guy."
That would be Optimizer's owner, Brad Kelley, the somewhat-reclusive billionaire who just purchased the legendary Calumet Farm, home to two Triple Crown champions, eight Derby winners and both Ben Jones and two-time-winning trainer Jimmy Jones. Once the gold-standard for the thoroughbred industry, Churchill Downs spokesman John Asher said anybody who loves the sport "is dreaming of seeing those fields filled with mares and foals again ... and maybe seeing those devil's red and blue silks on the track again."
A rumor swept across Churchill Downs late Friday afternoon that those fabled silks would be pulled out of storage and draped across Optimizer in time for Saturday's run. If so, Lukas was willing to take any edge he could get.
"It's not like the heyday, the 1950s and '60s, where seven or eight horses came to the post for the Derby and Calumet Farm won most of them," he said. "But this is still one game where a little bit of luck goes a long way."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.