LOUISVILLE — What used to be a bit of touchy fact is now worn with as much regularity and pride as the cowboy hat that is among his many signatures.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is 77 years old. "I'll be 78" he proclaimed, confirming the Sept. 2 birthdate listed in media bio books.
At 77, Lukas still beats most of his training brethren to the backside each morning — a fact that held even after Grade III winner Hamazing Destiny reared up and gave him a head full of stitches during Belmont Stakes week last year.
And at 77, he still climbs astride his pony to guide his charges to the track, still grazes his horses himself and still holds court before an audience like no one in the game.
"I get up and ride every day, I get up and open that gate every day for the young guys and let them come in later," he said.
At 77, Lukas has every intent of once again showing the young guys how one goes about winning on the first Saturday in May.
As much as Lukas' age does not define him, the numbers he continues to put up in the sport of Thoroughbred racing have redefined the bar of success for his comrades.
Among the figures pointed to most when discussing his a career are his record-tying 13 wins in Triple Crown races and his four Kentucky Derby victories, second only to Ben Jones' mark of six.
Lukas plans to further close the gap on Jones. With a record 45 Derby starters already in the books, Lukas is slated to add two more to that Saturday and attempt to become the oldest trainer ever to saddle a Derby winner when his graded stakes-winning duo Oxbow and Will Take Charge go to post in the 139th Kentucky Derby.
"This isn't exactly Golden Pond we're dealing with here. This is the Kentucky Derby we're dealing with. But I don't feel like I'm in my last one," Lukas said. "I think there is more in front, especially the way Calumet (owner of Oxbow) is building up and some of the clientèle we're getting. Each (Derby) is a separate identity and separate moment. I just want to win a couple more."
It's not as if Lukas has ever truly been out of the Derby mix. Since he saddled his first Derby starter in 1981, the race has gone off only six times without him.
Still, 14 years have passed since Lukas led Charismatic to victory in the 1999 edition of the race. And while he doesn't compare his current duo to his past winners, Oxbow and Will Take Charge have added air to the constant spring in his moves.
At 17 hands, the splashy-looking Will Take Charge has been a stunner from the start, selling to owner Willis Horton for $425,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Out of Grade I winner Take Charge Lady — who also produced 2012 Derby starter Take Charge Indy — Will Take Charge rebounded from a sixth-place run in the Southwest Stakes in February by rallying to beat Oxbow by a head in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16.
"I told (jockey) Jon Court this horse (Will Take Charge) is going to cause me a lot of sleepless nights because I'm getting excited," Lukas said. "He made my knees buckle (when he sold at Keene-land)."
Smaller than his stablemate and exceptionally full of himself in his gallops, Oxbow has just two wins in nine career starts but one of those is an 111/2-length victory in the Grade III LeComte at Fair Grounds in January. Shuffled well back during his recent fifth-place finish in the Grade I Arkansas Derby, Oxbow does have a pedigree suited for 11/4 miles but — like Will Take Charge — will need some help to move up on Derby Day.
"Oxbow, he's tough. I think he could work five days in a row," Lukas said. "I think these two fit this year, this field, this scenario pretty well. I'm comfortable where I'm at with my horses. Whether they're good enough, we'll find out."
Confidence is never at a shortfall with Lukas, and even during his leaner times he maintained that he wasn't done threatening the likes of his former assistant-turned five-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher come Derby time.
Instead of being dulled by the passage of time, his infamous competitive will only seems to be growing.
"I think I'm more passionate and into it more than in other years," Lukas said. "Of course a good horse will bring that out in you."
When: 6:24 p.m. Saturday