LOUISVILLE — There are now generations of Thoroughbred racing fans that literally have no concept of what the sport looked like before the presence of trainer D. Wayne Lukas. At age 78, the Hall of Famer's reign as arguably the single biggest game-changer the sport has known in modern times is still gathering new milestones and adding to achievements that remain unparalleled.
Lukas reigns over the Breeders' Cup World Championships, as his 19 wins in racing's richest event are ten more than his nearest challenger.
With the 30th edition of the Breeders' Cup set to take place Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita Park, Lukas is coming in very much the way he did when the year-end fest was in its infancy — full of swagger and armed with more than one prospect that could put more lengths between him and his colleagues.
The 2013 season has served as a Lukas renaissance, even if he maintains he never went anywhere to begin with. After winning just five graded stakes from 2009-2012, Lukas runners are again prevailing in defining races with nine graded stakes wins this year, including his record 14th win in a Triple Crown race with Preakness Stakes hero Oxbow.
Like days of old, Lukas has arrived at this year's Breeders' Cup with multiple graded stakes performers in his holster.
Fast Bullet and Skyring are outside, but capable, threats in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and Turf, respectively. High hopes have been pinned on Grade I Travers Stakes winner Will Take Charge seeking to become the first 3-year-old since Raven's Pass in 2008 to capture the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic while Grade I Hopeful Stakes victor Strong Mandate is among the 14 pre-entrants for the Juvenile.
"I think we're very competitive this year. I think we've got a nice set of horses," Lukas said. "Those (Breeders' Cup) races are not easy and we understand that. But I really like where we're at (with Will Take Charge). We're excited about running in the Classic, no question.
"Strong Mandate I think is the best 2-year-old in the country. I think we could go into the Breeders' Cup and make some real noise."
Oxbow's Preakness win and the recent success of Willis Horton's Will Take Charge have raised all boats within the Lukas shedrow. It was in the 2012 Breeders' Cup, however, that the resurgence began. Lukas saddled Brad Kelley's Hightail to victory in the now defunct Juvenile Sprint — his first Breeders' Cup triumph since 2005.
Kelley's Calumet Farm has infused quality stock into the meticulous Lukas shedrow. Lukas has been able to deliver Grade I wins for three of his staunchest clients in Kelley, Horton and Strong Mandate's owners Robert Baker and William Mack.
"I'm really happy for my clientele, all across the board," Lukas said. "They're all new except for Baker and Mack, of course. I've had them with me forever. I've won a lot of nice races, but I love to see the excitement and expression on these guys' faces when they win one. It's really great."
Since Oxbow suffered what turned out to be a career-ending ankle injury, Will Take Charge's chestnut shoulders have carried the barn mantle with aplomb. Though he failed to place in all three Triple Crown races, Lukas told all who would listen the son of Unbridled's Song was on the upswing following his runner-up finish in the Jim Dandy.
With his blinkers removed for the Travers, Will Take Charge made a desperate surge past Moreno to nip that one by a nose.
The result would be the same next time out Sept. 21 in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby — his ninth start of the year — but the margin of victory widened, this time to 21/4 lengths. Where the half-brother to fellow Grade I winner Take Charge Indy was gangly during the Triple Crown, Lukas feels Will Take Charge has gained some agility to go with his mettle.
"He's had so many races yet he is improving, and this fall I think he has really improved a lot," Lukas said. "Probably a combination of maturity or age. His coordination has improved for sure. For a big, long-striding horse, he's able to check and start and stop.
"I don't know where we'll go after the Classic. There are a number of farms interested in him but I think he would be an even better 4-year-old."
Lukas has saddled five Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners in his career and is already mentioning Strong Mandate in the same breath as some of them.
The son of Tiznow dazzled over a muddy track when winning the seven-furlong Hopeful by 93/4-lengths while geared down. His subsequent seventh-place finish in the Grade I Champagne still inspires ire however as Lukas expressed displeasure — to say the least — over the ride jockey Jose Ortiz orchestrated that day.
"I don't know what that kid was thinking. He rode a horrible race," Lukas said. "We said, 'Just ride the Hopeful race, exactly the same. Watch the speed and when you turn for home just let him run'.
"The gate opens, he breaks on top, and he takes him back to seventh. He made no effort to stay in the race."
Strong Mandate will thus have Joel Rosario in the irons for his expected Juvenile run. And as has been the norm for decades now, Lukas has every intention of remaining in the forefront for 2014.
"I think he's going to love two turns. He's got great tactical speed. He's a big strong horse that is developing every day," Lukas said of Strong Mandate. "He's one of the most exciting prospects not only for the Breeders' Cup but beyond for the Triple Crown next year. This is a good one."
Where: Santa Anita Park