Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Derby never gets old for D. Wayne Lukas

Derby contender Optimizer spent some time on the Churchill track Wednesday morning in advance of Saturday's 138th Run for the Roses. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Derby contender Optimizer spent some time on the Churchill track Wednesday morning in advance of Saturday's 138th Run for the Roses. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

LOUISVILLE — For the man who holds so many records, now D. Wayne Lukas has a shot at grabbing one more.

In 1989, Sunday Silence made Charlie Whittingham, who had just turned 76 years old, the oldest trainer ever to win the Kentucky Derby.

D. Wayne Lukas is 76 years and eight months.

He's also back in the Kentucky Derby.

He has the Jones boys to thank. Owner Brereton Jones and trainer Larry Jones (no relation) announced Tuesday morning that their horse Mark Valeski would not take part in the 138th running of the Derby on Saturday, which opened a spot in the field for the Lukas-trained Optimizer.

"The governor, Brereton Jones, called me personally this morning," Lukas said Tuesday via phone. "He was so gracious and nice. He said, 'I just want you to know you're in the Kentucky Derby and we're happy for you.' "

The former governor isn't alone.

"I think it's great any time Wayne is involved," Todd Pletcher, trainer of Gemologist, one of the favorites, and a former Lukas assistant, said Wednesday. "It's great to have him a part of it."

After all, Lukas has won four Kentucky Derbys, second only to Ben Jones. Lukas has captured 13 Triple Crown races, including a string of five straight from Tabasco Cat's 1994 Belmont win through Grindstone's victory in the 1996 Kentucky Derby.

He hasn't won the Derby since 1999 with Charismatic, however, which followed Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Grindstone in 1996.

Lukas hasn't been in the money since Proud Citizen finished second 10 years ago. He has saddled five starters since, his best finish among those coming when Dublin took seventh in 2010.

So Optimizer is Lukas' first Derby starter since then. He will be Lukas' 45th Derby starter, adding to his record for most Derby starters.

How good is Bluegrass Hall's Optimizer?

The son of English Channel ran his first two races on turf before being moved over to the dirt. Optimizer ran second in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.

He trained well leading up to the Arkansas Derby, but inexplicably ran ninth in the race dominated by Bob Baffert's Bodemeister.

That left Optimizer on the outside looking in as far as the needed graded earnings to make the 20-horse cut.

The uncertainty continued Monday through Mark Valeski's work, after which Larry Jones said he probably would not make a decision until Wednesday morning whether to enter the horse.

On Tuesday, however, the connections called a 10 a.m. news conference to announce Mark Valeski was out and Lukas was in.

"Hopefully it's not Wayne's final hurrah," joked trainer Larry Jones. "He looked pretty good on the pony this morning. I think he'll live to Saturday, but I didn't want him to wind up being in the hospital like Baffert (who suffered a heart attack last month) and it be my fault."

Instead of the hospital, Lukas is in the starting gate. If he's in the starting gate, he thinks he can win.

"I think there's so much parity in the field this year," said the trainer on Tuesday. "Twenty horses any year is tough. This year I think it's going to be even tougher. It's going to get down to whether the horses can get the mile and a quarter and if they can get the trip."

Lukas has no doubts his horse can get the distance. It's the trip he's worried about.

"Someone asked me how many times does the best horse win the Kentucky Derby and I said about 20 percent of the time because the trip is so important," said the trainer. "It'll be important to us and it'll be important to everybody else, too."

As for the Derby training trip, Lukas knows the way.

That doesn't mean it ever gets old, especially for someone who hasn't made that walk over from the backstretch to the paddock for the Derby since 2010.

"I told somebody the other day, everything is the same, just the dreams get older," he said. "I think the passion is stronger right now than it's ever been. I think at this point, (a win) would be the most satisfying one of all."

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