It’s one of my prize possessions in my horse racing memorabilia collection yet I bang it on the floor, shred nylon and clank iron with it. It gets left on the floor, tossed in the air and at times waves of teenagers will fight for it or get scolded for not doing so.
|Lukas entertains a crowd at this year's Kentucky Derby.|
On Preakness eve in 2011, I was walking to my car in between races at Pimlico when I saw the four time Kentucky Derby winner trainer D. Wayne Lukas sitting by himself on a bench just outside the stakes barn. I greeted him as I walked by and he returned the gesture as I continued walking to my car.
When I opened the trunk to drop off my camera, I found a “sharpie” and a half dozen basketballs that I used in coaching a middle school basketball team. Recalling that Lukas was once a high school basketball coach, well, getting an autograph was a layup.
Being around the Triple Crown for over a decade I had gotten to know Lukas in little bits and pieces. He can talk to large groups but tells tales better in smaller circles. The stories he can tell are its own book, and might include everyone ranging from Bob Knight to M.C. Hammer. I’ve spent hours as an innocent bystander, eavesdropping over the shoulder of noted Bloodhorse writer Steve Haskin listening to Lukas tell stories.
On the return walk to the grandstand, I passed the ball to Lukas who was now accompanied by a couple that he trains horses for. Catching the ball, he was grinning ear to ear underneath his sun soaked cowboy hat and said “I know what one of these is used for,” and performed a few ball handling drills, switching the ball to the opposite hand a few times. The tricks were simple, yet textbook.
Lukas had remembered a few years earlier when late in the morning at Churchill Downs, when after many of the Oaks Day earlybirds had left, he was discussing how the skills he learned coaching basketball translated to the shed row.
|The Lukas ball gets plenty of wear.|
Churchill Downs has a basketball hoop on the backstretch and I challenged him to a game of “Horse” but we couldn’t find the drivers of the satellite trucks that were parked on the asphalt court in time ahead of an approaching rainfall. Unfortunately, Pimlico didn’t have a court near the stakes barn.
Lukas fills a slot in the starting gate in nearly every Triple Crown race these days but not with the success he had when I started to follow this sport with vigor. When I began to cover racing, he was “the king”. Thunder Gulch, Timber County, Charismatic, Grindstone and Commendable were his Triple Crown race winners in a half decade span. A decade before I knew what thoroughbred racing was, Lukas won the Derby with filly Winning Colors. Yet in a decade since, he hasn’t been able to add to his Triple Crown mantel.
Lukas came to Colonial Downs in the late nineties, perhaps during Colonial’s first season on a paid appearance rumored to be five figures to help booster the new track. Should he show up this Saturday to saddle his horse, he may be wearing his westerns and not an impeccable suit as he did when I saw him at Colonial. It’s believed that Optimizer would be his first starter at Colonial Downs.
|Optimizer may be Lukas' first Colonial starter.|
Optimizer started in all three Triple Crown races and is returning to the turf where he won his only race in 12 starts. Lukas isn’t shy about starting his horses frequently when the horse allows it. During Preakness week he considered switching Optimizer with Skyring, his colt that won the James Murphy Stakes.
As of Thursday morning, it is unclear and likely a long shot that he would saddle his starter in person at Colonial Downs this Saturday with the meet starting up at Saratoga this Friday. If he does, have the hoop ready on the backstretch. Lukas knows how to hold court and I already have a basketball down here with his name on it.