BALTIMORE — Of all the ways D. Wayne Lukas could have spent his first morning at Pimlico Race Course this week, Wednesday provided the most fitting of settings for Thoroughbred racing's resident dean.
As the only trainer with his Preakness Stakes starters on the grounds, Lukas had the stage all to himself, fielding questions for nearly an hour on everything from the fitness of his Grade I-winning colt Dublin (very good) to his first Preakness winner 30 years ago.
With a record-tying 13 victories in Triple Crown races, Lukas is the authoritative voice of all things surrounding the classics. Considering that five of those wins have come in the Preakness, the Hall of Famer is without peer when it comes to conquering the biggest prize at the track known as the Old Hilltop.
Since 1909, no trainer has saddled as many starters in the Preakness as Lukas (34). And in that time, no trainer has won the 13⁄16-mile race more often. The 74-year-old Lukas' five wins equal Thomas Healey and are two shy of R.W. Walden's record seven Preakness victories during the 1800s.
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This year, on the 30th anniversary of his first Preakness win, Lukas will send Dublin and stablemate Northern Giant to the post Saturday.
His four victories in the Kentucky Derby might have defined Lukas as the king of the classics. However, it is the Preakness that introduced him to the racing world and perhaps has best showcased his ability to bring a horse up to a big race as well as anyone in the game.
Of his five Preakness winners, only Charismatic in 1999 won the race after taking the Kentucky Derby. His first winner, Codex in 1980, did not start in the Derby, and Tank's Prospect (1985), Tabasco Cat (1994) and Timber Country (1995) ran seventh, sixth, and third in the Derby, respectively.
"I've had great luck (in the Preakness). It seems like my horses come off of this one (the Derby) even with subpar performances in some of your eyes, and they run really well at the Preakness," Lukas said earlier this week at Churchill Downs. "For a couple years, I was using (the Derby) as a prep. I had grandiose ideas I could win them all, so I thought I'd slip by this one and have something left, but that wasn't going to work so I quit that. But the Preakness has been good to me. My horses always seem to fire there."
The self-assured, seasoned Lukas of today is a far cry from the so-called "cowboy" that showed up at Pimlico in 1980 with his first starter in a Triple Crown race. As his fellow trainers would soon discover, though, Lukas and notoriety went hand in hand.
Despite winning the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby during the spring, Codex wasn't nominated to the Kentucky Derby — leaving him on the sidelines while the brilliant filly Genuine Risk became the second female to capture the roses.
"When everybody would get out in the afternoon and graze a little bit, I'm looking at Codex, and he's looking like a tank out there," Lukas recalled on Wednesday. "And I'm looking at the Derby horses, and I'm thinking some of these look stressed to me.
"LeRoy Jolley (trainer of Genuine Risk) and a number of good friends of mine now all said the same thing. Of course, they didn't know who the hell I was, I had just come over from the quarter horses. But I remember they said, 'The cowboy's horse really looks good.' "
While the history books show Codex won the Preakness by 4¾ lengths over Genuine Risk, those who witnessed the race know it wasn't that simple.
In a moment that remains controversial, Codex, with Angel Cordero Jr. aboard, drifted into Genuine Risk as the filly was ranging up to him around the final turn, carrying her toward the middle of the track and snatching away her momentum. Making the situation all the more ripe for criticism was the fact that Cordero glanced back at the filly as she came to him, suggesting to some the wide move was premeditated.
Though there was no stewards' inquiry, Genuine Risk's rider, Jacinto Vasquez, lodged a claim of foul, saying, among other things, that Cordero had also struck Genuine Risk over the head with his whip. Following the stewards' initial decision to let the result stand and a subsequent commission ruling two weeks later, Lukas officially had his first win in a Triple Crown race.
"I got into the hearings, and ... I got a little concerned, but I didn't think they'd reverse (the outcome). It went on longer than I thought, but I was optimistic we had run the best horse."
While his first Preakness win showed he could bring a horse into the race fresh, Lukas has since mastered the art of getting his protégés to hold their form during the two-week interval after the Derby.
On Saturday, the man with the perfectionist nature would love nothing more than to prove he's still in a class by himself whenever he rolls into Baltimore.
"That was our first classic ... and it kind of stamped us," Lukas said. "This has been a good spot. This is the most fun of them all."