D. Wayne Lukas is a living legend, one of the most successful trainers in Thoroughbred racing history, and he's been on the Kentucky Derby scene since 1981, when he finished third with Partez.
His first Derby victory came in 1988, via the filly Winning Colors, and the Lukas stable commanded the utmost respect over the next dozen years, winning the first leg of the American Triple Crown a total of four times. That ranks him second with Herbert Thompson (1920s and `30s) and leader Ben Jones (six wins from 1938-52) is within striking range.
But Lukas' fortunes changed in the last decade. Since 2000, one year after his most recent winner, Charismatic, Lukas has saddled seven longshots in the Derby. He sent 23-1 outsider Proud Citizen to a runner-up finish in 2002, but most have performed poorly and been generally overlooked in the build-up to the race.
This year has served as a renaissance of sorts for the 77-year-old veteran. Lukas is back in the spotlight with a pair of serious contenders, graded stakes winners Oxbow and Will Take Charge, and the trainer feels good about his chances.
"When you've been in 30 of them or so like I have and had success in some of them, you get realistic real quick about what you've got to work with," Lukas said. "It isn't that the race diminishes in your interest or in your passion for it, but you look at what you've got to work with, meaning the horse, and you get to the point where you say, `Are you realistically in this thing?'
"Now, you come along this year and we got two horses that fit the scenario of a Derby horse. Again, you have to have everything fall into place, but we've got a chance."
The contrast is obvious between his horses: Oxbow prefers to race on or close to the lead, while Will Take Charge does his best running from off the pace.
"Oxbow is going to be up there with the leaders somewhere. I don't know if he will be on the lead but he'll be in the first flight," Lukas said.
The speedy colt exits a puzzling fifth-place finish as one of the favorites in the Arkansas Derby
"The thing that happened in the Arkansas Derby was (jockey) Gary Stevens wasn't used to him. He doesn't want to be grabbed hold of," Lukas explained. "He's a free-running, genuine horse, gives you all he's got, goes to the well every damn time. In a work, in the morning, in a race, doesn't matter. He'll run on crushed glass. He doesn't care. "
Stevens, a three-time Derby winner, including Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch (1995) for Lukas, was riding Oxbow for the first time in the Arkansas Derby and will retain the mount in the Run for the Roses.
"Gary thought he was going to get caught real wide (from post 10) and he'd been caught a couple of races wide so Gary took a hold of him not knowing the end result was going to be a disaster," Lukas said. "Next thing you know, here's the speed horse of the race, should have dictated the pace and he's last catching all that kickback from the horses in front of him.
"But draw a line through it, it was a bad experience, and Gary apologized profusely after the race. We just regrouped and it looks like we're on track here."
Will Take Charge is a son of successful sire Unbridled's Song and hails from the outstanding racemare Take Charge Lady, a multiple Grade 1-winning earner of more than $2.4 million. Lukas knew early on that Will Take Charge was potentially Derby material.
"Will Take Charge was a big, rangy horse with that pedigree and everything and I said this is a prototype for maybe a Derby horse," the trainer said. "You start stereotyping what you've got in front of you."
Will Take Charge is known for his lengthy stride, which he displayed his last time out, when rallying to win the March 16 Rebel.
"If you look at the video of him training the other morning (April 21st), his stride is getting better," Lukas said with a grin. "It was a mile work and he was really reaching out at the end. He's 17-hands and that's huge. He'll be the biggest, tallest one in there. He towers over all 20 of them (in the Derby field).
"Will Take Charge gathers the horses up in front of him. He's getting stronger and better. He's coming off a seven-week layoff, and that was by design. And we're letting him grow, letting him develop kind like that gangly athlete who gets good as a senior.
"We're excited about him. I think he's a pretty good horse."
Kentucky Derby fever runs rampant in the months leading up the race, but Lukas notes that it can be overblown at times.
"Of course I do, but not everybody puts as much emphasis on the Derby," Lukas said. "A lot of good trainers out there end up with a Derby horse in February or March, by surprise. But Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, myself, we point our horses toward the Derby and try to get it."
How have times changed?
"The media coverage is greater than it used to be, there's a lot more hoopla involved with it now than there used to be," he said. "I ran in my first Derby in 1981, and it was lot different back then.
"At that point, the conversation whether you could get in the Derby wasn't even part of it. If you had a horse, many years there was maybe 14 head, 15 head (in the Derby) and you got in. Now, the leaderboard (which determines the 20 starters) becomes the story every year, everybody wants to run whether they belong or not.
"The hype part of it, that's greater than it's ever been."
Does the media coverage ever affect the horses?
"I think it affects some young trainers," Lukas joked.
One thing Lukas laments in this era of Thoroughbred horse racing is the lack of mentoring. He believes horsemanship is something that should be passed down from generation to generation.
"You go to a coaching clinic, Bob Knight, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), or any of these coaches, and they'll get up and they'll diagram their whole offense for you.
"You go over here (he points to the barn area at the track) and ask someone about maybe what to do at the gate or how far you should work a horse and they'll just look at you like, `Are you nuts?' They won't share anything. We get that, that's why we got these former assistants that are doing so good. We've taught -- that's my coaching background.
"Ten years as a basketball coach, I can't help myself."
Lukas taught high school and coached basketball in his native Wisconsin before becoming a trainer in 1968, rising to the top of the Quarter-Horse ranks before shifting to Thoroughbreds in the late 1970s.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, he's been the nation's leading trainer by money earned 14 times; received the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer four times; won a record 19 Breeders' Cup races; and is tied with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Triple Crown race wins with 13.
However, Lukas is most proud of the fact that he's developed some of top trainers in the sport presently. The distinguished list of former assistants includes Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart and Mark Hennig.
"We have kind of a fraternity, or a family if you will and we communicate a lot," Lukas said. "Todd's (Pletcher) of course been the leader, the golden boy lately, and I'm happy for him because he's a great trainer and a great guy. But all of (my former assistants) mean a lot to me.
"They still call me Coach, everybody does."
Famous for his work ethic, Lukas shows no signs of slowing down. I asked him whether he could envision himself training when he's 90-years-old.
"Absolutely. As long as you're physically and mentally sharp and everything, it's an experience factor. There is no `How to' book on training. And these guys that are out there doing it for the first time, they're going to get a learning curve in this environment in a hurry.
"If I were a prospective owner, and I don't say this for my older generation colleagues, I would damn sure get someone who's been there, done that. I see some of these young guys and they're making the same mistakes I made in the `80s."
I wished him luck with both Oxbow and Will Take Charge.
"We'll give it our best chance," Lukas said.
That's one thing we can count on from the Coach.