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A life in the barn: 86-year-old Wayne Lukas prepares for Preakness with Secret Oath

Tim Layden traces the long, at times successful and at times heartbreaking, road that Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has taken to get to the 147th Preakness Stakes with Secret Oath.

Many years ago, when D. Wayne Lukas was a younger man, when he ruled the thoroughbred racing world like a Colossus in leather chaps while on horseback in the morning and $3,000 suits while in the paddock in the afternoon; when he commuted to his four separate racing divisions in a private jet (and sometimes in a helicopter); when he had more than 400 horses and nearly as many human employees; when he was not just larger than his ancient sport but larger than life; he was approached one day by his business manager, a practical man named David Burrage, who suggested to Lukas that perhaps it was time to install a more corporate culture at D. Wayne Lukas Racing Stables. Starting with paid vacation for his managers, among them a handful of twenty- and thirty-something young assistant trainers who would go on to terrific solo careers, and also Lukas’s son, and only child, Jeff.

Lukas was aghast at the idea. “What are you talking about?” he said to Burrage. “These guys won’t want to do that. Jeff won’t want to do that.” Burrage gently instructed his boss: “Actually, they all want vacation and Jeff was the first one to agree to it.” Grudgingly, almost disbelievingly, Lukas agreed to grant some leave to his assistants. But decades later, the incident stays with Burrage, 66, who worked for Lukas from 1980-’99. “I realized then, that Wayne’s vacation was going to the stable at four o’clock in the morning every day,” says Burrage. “We all know a lot of people who love what they do, but Wayne is different from most of them. He loves what he does, but he only loves that one thing. And he does it all the time, and he doesn’t do anything else.

“I’ve not, in my entire life, met anyone like him.”

It is a story, one among many like it, that takes on fresh relevance. On the day before the Kentucky Derby, a filly named Secret Oath, trained by 86-year-old Darrell Wayne Lukas, won the Kentucky Oaks, a race that doesn’t penetrate the mainstream sports world, but is a vitally important and traditional race for three-year-old fillies and an integral part of Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. It has meaning.

And in the aftermath of Secret Oath’s Oaks victory, racing fans saw a scene that was full of the familiar: Lukas making his way to the winners’ circle after a big race, wearing a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses and a Hollywood smile. It was as if a time capsule had been dug up from Churchill infield and popped open just when needed most. (Except: Lukas also walked with the aid of a cane, to ease the discomfort from his dodgy lower back, which he said his wife, Laurie, insisted upon; Laurie Lukas eye-rolled that one: “He likes the cane,” she said. “He just doesn’t like to admit that he likes it”).

Racing had come to Kentucky for Derby weekend in its seemingly perpetual state of crisis, framed by ongoing scandal and uncertainty. In need of good news. Lukas’s win was a cleansing breath – if not resolution, relief. And it was not his only stamp on the weekend; hours before the Oaks, Lukas had scratched three-year-old Ethereal Road from the Kentucky Derby with a minor illness, allowing Rich Strike to enter from the also eligible list, and setting the stage for his stunning victory on Saturday evening.

And it continues: This weekend Lukas will run Secret Oath against eight colts in the Preakness. He’s won the race six times, most recently in 2013 with Oxbow in a victory that many – including Lukas himself – logically assumed might be his last on the sport’s biggest stages. “I love the main events,” says Lukas. “When we won the Preakness with Oxbow, at the time, I didn’t know if we’d have another one. But this is what I thrive on, going after the big ones.” The absence of Rich Strike, whose owner has decided to skip the Preakness, pushes Lukas further into the spotlight.

There is no secret to Lukas’s longevity. (That doesn’t mean there have not been challenges, sacrifice, and loss; keep reading). “Wayne is a horseman,” says Laurie. “It really is that simple.”

How simple? Last week when I reached out to schedule an interview with Wayne, Laurie explained that she would have to confirm with Wayne the next day, because he was asleep. It was 7:30 p.m. He rises at 3:30 a.m., drives 25 minutes to his barn at Churchill Downs, arriving no later than 4:20 a.m. “I’m always the first trainer on the grounds,” says Lukas, and if that is not true, it is nevertheless put forth as a challenge. Those 400 horses he once trained are now 29. “I like them all in one barn,” says Lukas. He still gets up on his pony every day, though he climbs there from a small stepstool.

The Lukas Story is writ large across nearly a half-century of racing. He was first a boy raised around horses in rural Wisconsin, and then as an adult he was a high school teacher and basketball coach and then a quarter-horse trainer before switching to thoroughbreds in 1978 at the age of 43. He won his first classic race two years later (the Preakness with Codex), his first Breeders Cup and the first of four Eclipse awards as outstanding trainer in 1985, and the first of four Kentucky Derbies with filly Winning Colors in 1988. He likened his operation to a football team, yearlings to draft choices and big races to the Super Bowl. Some felt he pushed his horses too hard and burned through too much of his owners’ money, and his bravado could be off-putting, but there is little doubt he elevated the sport. It is rare that dominance engenders unconditional love. Also time has smoothed out Lukas’s rough edges, as time will do.

Lukas’s business plan was complicated, but also blessedly simple: Get to the barn first, every day. Outwork the competition. Win big races. There were wealthy owners, that jet, the chopper. (I saw Lukas win the 1987 Eclipse Award for trainer, and at his acceptance he told a story about having seen his name on a cheap message board 15 years earlier at a quarter horse event. Man, it just doesn’t get any better than this, he recalled thinking, and then paused for a beat while a fancy ballroom full of tuxedoes and gowns waited for the punch line. “Well, I’m here to tell you,” said Lukas. “It does.”). But all of that was ancillary.

“Even when we had it rolling, at the top of our game,” says Burrage, “Wayne was never really into all the hoopla. Sure, everybody enjoys the limelight. But Wayne just wanted to train horses. He wanted to make them better. That’s who he is. That’s been his singular focus. There are negatives to that. It’s tough on married life. Tough on family life.” (Lukas’s current marriage is his fifth, to strike one note). His single-mindedness has rewarded millions of racing fans.

One event irrevocably altered the course of Wayne’s life: In 1993, Jeff was run over by Tabasco Cat, a fast and ornery (assistant Dallas Stewart called him a “badass horse”) two-year-old who would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont. Jeff suffered a traumatic brain injury, and while he lived 23 more years, he never fully recovered and never again trained thoroughbreds alongside his father. (I chronicled Jeff’s journey in a 2013 Sports Illustrated story ). “If Jeff was there, I think I would have taken a lesser role,” says Wayne. “He had a real gift for working with horses.”

In Jeff’s absence, a family connection has grown. Wayne is close with Jeff’s son, Brady, 32, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who is currently stationed in St. Louis and drives to Churchill often. “Brady and Wayne are more like father and son than grandfather and son,” says Laurie. For Brady, the experience of watching Wayne win the Oaks connected dots; Wayne had trained the great fillies Lady’s Secret and Winning Colors, but their daily care was in Jeff’s hands. “That experience gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like with those fillies and with my dad,” says Brady. “It was pretty emotional for me.”

Jeff’s daughter, Kelly, 29, who was just 10 months old when Jeff was injured, is a physician’s assistant, living in Louisville, and often sees Wayne and Laurie.

Wayne’s passion has endured through a trying decade. In 2015, he received a pacemaker to address a heart issue. In August of 2020, he became seriously ill with COVID-19. “I really got it bad,” says Wayne. “I was weak, I was really having trouble breathing. One night, I was feeling so bad, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I said goodbye to my wife, to my grandchildren. Then I made it through the night. Wasn’t my turn.” (Brady notes that Wayne was taken briefly to the hospital, against his wishes. “I told him, ‘There’s a time to cowboy it, and there’s a time to get help. This is a time to get help,’” says Brady. “He’s really pretty incredible”).

Last December, Wayne was hospitalized just before Christmas, and doctors found four bleeding ulcers. According to Laurie, Wayne received at least four blood transfusions and needed months to fully regain his strength. On top of all this, he’s had that sore back for years. Nevertheless, he returned to the barn, and to the horse. “Of course we worry [about Wayne getting on horseback in the morning],” says Laurie. “But telling him to stay off the horse, that’s like taking away an older person’s car keys. I would not tell him that. And you know, he’s most comfortable on horseback; there’s something about it that doesn’t aggravate his back.” (This conversational trip leads to a question: When and how does this end? Laurie says, with a heavy dose of horseman’s humor, “Wayne’s idea is to just fall off his pony, and then the tractor comes along and harrows him under”). There’s more: Wayne assiduously avoids hanging with age peers, because, he says, “They just sit around and talk about how lousy they feel.” One of his favorite songs is Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let The Old Man In,” a rumination on fighting off old age.

And perhaps more moments remain. As Secret Oath rolled through the Churchill homestretch, beneath the spires, Brady and Kelly had been stuck in the crowd and fought through it to embrace their grandfather. Stewart, one of his assistants all those years ago, was in a neighboring box and hugged him, too. On the track, Todd Pletcher, the most successful of his former plebes, also wrapped him in an embrace. And Keiran McLaughlin was nearby, too, having retired as a trainer but now working as the agent for Secret Oath’s jockey, Luis Saez. It was all rather like a family reunion. “There was a different look in Wayne’s eyes,” says Laurie. “There were a lot of tears in the group.”

Brady says, “It was pretty special. He knows he’s not going to be doing this forever.”

He will be doing it this weekend in Baltimore. One more Preakness. One more filly. One man’s footprints sunk deeper into racing history.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.