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Thursday, September 19, 2013
At 78, Lukas is comeback kid

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Wayne Lukas was done, the fork stuck so deeply in him that nothing was going to get it out. Yet here he is coming into the Pennsylvania Derby Saturday at Parx Racing trying to win his third $1 million race this year and his third graded stake over a four-week period. Here he is, buying well bred horses by the truckload at Keeneland, acting like he's 38 and not 78, signaling his intentions to be around for a long time to come.

Lukas' comeback actually started in the Breeders' Cup last fall when he won the Juvenile Sprint with Hightail.

The best story Saturday at Parx will not be the rematch of Lukas' Will Take Charge and rival Moreno, the one-two finishers in the Travers, or jockey Luis Saez and Buzzer-gate. It will be Lukas.

The days when Wayne Lukas was the most successful trainer the sport had ever produced seemed like a distant memory. Lukas was old and his stable wasn't winning, at least anything important. Over a two-year period starting in 2010 he didn't win a single graded stakes race and his winning rate was an anemic 11.7 percent.

Lukas' comeback actually started in the Breeders' Cup last fall when he won the Juvenile Sprint with Hightail. It was his first Breeders' Cup win in seven years. But it was easy at the time to dismiss the win as a fluke. The Juvenile Sprint was a terrible race and Hightail didn't look like a horse with any kind of future.

But Hightail kick started something. Lukas had won six stakes in 2013 entering May and then won the Preakness with Oxbow, his first victory in a Triple Crown race since 2000. After Oxbow went down with an injury he regrouped and won the Travers with Will Take Charge. Just a week later he won the Grade 1 Hopeful with Strong Mandate, who looks like the horse to beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

In hindsight, it's obvious that Lukas never forgot how to train a horse. But perception is always more powerful than reality and for Lukas a cold spell wasn't a slump it was a sign to top owners that the old guy didn't have it anymore. There aren't a lot of people out there willing to hire a septuagenarian trainer coming off a bad year or two.

What Lukas needed was a break to reverse his fortunes and he got one when Brad Kelley decided to hire him. Kelley, who made his millions selling cigarettes, is a recluse who rarely grants interviews so it's not known exactly why he was willing to give Lukas a chance. But he did and he started acquiring top horses like Oxbow, just the sort of ammunition Lukas had lacked over the last several years.

Owner D. Wayne Lukas
Will Lukas' resurgence continue in Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby?
Kelley, who now operates under the Calumet Farm banner, is Lukas' primary owner and shows no signs of slowing down. Through Tuesday, Calumet had bought 12 yearlings at the Keeneland sale for a combined $2.16 million. He should have Lukas well stocked for a run at the 2015 Kentucky Derby, and the same goes for owners Willis Horton and the team of Robert Baker and William Mack. Horton, who owns Will Take Charge, has bought three horses at Keeneland for a combined $1.42 million. Baker and Mack, the owners of Strong Mandate, bought two yearlings for a total of $950,000.

Lukas' winning percentage remains low at 10 percent, but it's down there only because he's just about the only trainer willing to run his horses more than four times a year and at times when they're not 4-5. But 10 percent will always turn off owners when there are so many super trainers out there who bang out 25 percent or better a year.

That may mean that Lukas will not threaten the Todd Pletchers or Bob Bafferts for national honors or earnings and wins titles. But he's relevant again, even important, as impossible as that might once have seemed.

Saez, Where's The Ruling? Jockey Luis Saez was accused by trainer Eric Guillot of carrying a battery when he rode Will Take Charge in the Travers. If it's true he should be suspended for at least 10 years and Will Take Charge should be disqualified. If it's not true then he needs to be fully exonerated and be allowed to get on with his life and his career.

Did he or didn't he? It's been almost four weeks since the Travers and the New York Gaming Commission has yet to make a ruling on the Saez case. That's inexcusable.

This is a matter that needed to be handled swiftly. It's unfair to Saez to leave him hanging and unfair to the sport and the bettors to have this matter hanging over the Pennsylvania Derby, where Moreno and Will Take Charge will meet again.