Q & A: Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas takes the spotlight

Q & A: Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas takes the spotlight
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Q: Talk about D. Wayne Lukas at age 86 and still killing it at the track.

A: Well, it just means that my health is pretty good and I’m outlasting ‘em a little bit (smiles). You know, if you have a passion for something, you eliminate all the excuses. I am still passionate about the sport, so I’m not trying to look for some soft spot to lie (down). I’m not trying to figure out a way to do less. I am trying to be out here and be as productive as I was when I was 40 or 50.

So that's my mindset, I don't think of myself as, you know, being old, until I look in the mirror. Then I know I am. But the whole thing about it is I don't change my mindset or my attitude about what I'm trying to do. And then a good horse or two comes along, and it makes it easy.

Q:  Your mind is still very young.

Well, it is. Yeah. Some of my dear friends have dementia. I’ve been lucky and fortunate not to have any – that I know of – mental deterioration, as far as trying to remember things. I still remember things, I don't feel like going through any of that. As long as I can fool with a good horse to still make decisions … this is a game of experience, you know. There’s no “how to book” so whatever you want to accomplish wit these these horses, it's good to know that you've tried it for 40 years with a lot of different ones that showed you different things. And the experience thing is unbelievably important.

Q: You're out here every morning, getting on the pony still. Some guys your age have been retired for 20, 25 years.  Retirement is not in your vocabulary, is it?

A: No, not really.  In fact, this year has been a bright spot. You know, I went through the COVID in (in 2020). I lost my key clients. I had four of five of them die over the little run of years there. And that made a big difference in the barn. But, what has happened here lately is that we're getting horses transferred over to us, we're getting new people that are coming and saying, ‘Look, I want to participate in the yearling sale.’

All of that has stimulated the whole barn. And we’ve got to be careful because I don't want to train more than one barn. By that, I mean most of the barns I deal with are 40 stalls. I don't want 46 or 49 where I got to have half of them someplace else. 

Q: It’s not hard to get up in the morning.

A: No, not at all. It never has been hard to get up. I really think that if I wasn’t training horses, I would still be an early riser. Maybe not 3 a.m. 

Q: You don’t need an alarm clock, do you?

A: No. I set it every day because, like (Tuesday) at the sale and I worked that sale hard. And so I was really tired. I fell asleep instantly. But I woke up. I think it’s my body telling me to get up and go. 

Q: You just love being at the barn.

A: Yeah, I do like it. I do cheat a little bit in the afternoons.  You know we graze our horses in the afternoon, get them out. If I'm working the sale over there, and I’m on my feet all day, I may not come by here at 4 p.m. I've got great help. And my younger assistant (Sebastian “Bas” Nicholl, who has been with him since 2002). Other than that, I don't have any real regrets about having to be here. In other words, I don't feel like I have to be here, but I am here.

Q: Now this is an impossible question to answer. Do you have an all-time favorite horse that you have trained?

A: I'm asked that all the time. And I think my answer to that has always been this: I have favorites but they run in different eras, different decades. But, you know, in the 70s the quarter horse Dash for Cash was unbelievable. Changed the whole breed. And then, in the 80s here comes Terlingua and Lady’s Secret and that group. I would say my favorite horse in each era. Serena’s Song had her run, and down the line. It’s very difficult to say this one is my favorite.  If I had to pick a couple of horses that I thought were special from a trainer’s standpoint, I would say Serena’s Song or Lady’s Secret or Lady Secret. They showed up every time, and I ran them even to the point of you and your colleagues criticizing me. You thought I was running them too much. But those horses showed up every time we entered them. The other horse that I said was special, and a lot of people don't realize this, is Thunder Gulch. Thunder Gulch was something.  I entered him and tested him. I mean, between the the Belmont and the Travers, hell, I ran him in the Swaps out in California. You wouldn't do that nowadays with a horse. But those horses all stand out. Of course, Landaluce was brilliant.

Q: And the horse now is Secret Oath, who will run in the Alabama next weekend at Saratoga.

A: She could be. She needs to get down the basepath a little further. But she she has all the potential to be in that conversation. Without a doubt. I've gotten a few questionable rides, or I think that we'd already be saying that she's one of the ones. I think she's going to have a great fall and a better 4-year-old year.  My colleague probably don't want to hear that. But I really think she's gonna be a lot better horse at four.

Q: If you had gone down your first path as a basketball coach, what kind of legacy do you think you would have?

A: I don’t know. I had the right people pushing me in the right direction. I sincerely think I would have been the head coach at Michigan. I had different people, big in the NCAA, that were behind me and were giving me the chance to maybe get good. I turned the corner and went this way with these thoroughbreds with no regrets, but I often wonder what would have happened.

"I don't think I'd still be at it because, you know, coaches at my age are non-existent. So I'd probably be somewhere, you know, trying to figure out how to fish or something. With this, the experience factor, I should be getting better and I think I am better.  I think I do a better job now than I did 40 years ago. That, opportunity to go to Michigan with (athletic director) Bo Schembechler and with Johnny Orr, who was the head coach leaving (in 1980) for Iowa State, it would have put me right in that spot, I think. And I, probably like all coaches, would last for eight or nine years and they change. That’s the way it is.

Q: Did you ever have a technical foul called on you?

A: Oh, geez. When I first started out, I was pretty bad about that. Then I figured out that I wasn’t going to change (call).  And I went exactly the other way. I had another deal that, early in my coaching days, that I was hard on my players. You’ve got to remember these are high school kids. I had a freshman team at Wisconsin and you can’t treat them like it’s a Marine death march. I used to go in the locker room after a bad performance and let everyone know who screwed up.

After coaching a year or two, I decided I was doing damage mentally to them. So I developed what I call the 24-hour rule. I would wait 24 hours and if I still felt the same way, I would pull them in my office and we’d have a heart to heart. We ran a no-nonsense program. Guys who played for me know that there were certain things that you didn’t do. There was no nonsense.

Q: Is Wayne Lukas more popular now than he was 20 years ago?

A: Seems like it. It seems like the fan base has increased. We walk through here at Saratoga or the Breeders’ Cup or Derby week or Preakness week and it seems like more people are more apt to come up and say, ‘gee, I’ve followed you for years.’ With old age and longevity, you get some of that. You inherit the mantle of being the ambassador. A lot of my colleagues have never tried to be the ambassador. I enjoy that. 

Q: If there was a movie made about your life and you could pick the actor to play you, who would it be?

A: I don’t have a clue. There is a guy talking about doing that, by the way. Since I have been up, here, I’ve been approached by a guy who is a serious, serious producer. I don’t think I want any part of it. It’s flattering  that it has come in conversations a couple of times already. 

Q: You aren’t really a TV or movie guy, are you?

A: No. TV to me is covering the sports. I do enjoy the documentary stuff on Netflix. By the way, there is one of those being done now, too.

Q: So, life is good for you right now.

A: Very good. yeah. I'm very, very fortunate to have found a soulmate and a wife (Laurie) who understands and is actually an outstanding horsewoman in her own right. I'm really fortunate because of that. She works side-by-side out here and knows a good horse. She looks at them at the sales with me.  That's been fun, rather than, you know, trying to sell this lifestyle to somebody … that’s a little tough. The divorce rate in horse trainers is about the same as those Hollywood types (laughs).

Q: Do you have any interests other than horse racing?

A: I have interests, but nothing that would be enough to pull me away. I don't fish. I quit playing golf years ago. My brother (Lowell) is in the NCAA (Golf Coaches Association) Hall of Fame. I really don’t do much and I don’t say that boastly. It’s probably not healthy and I am getting worse. I used to have a lot more outside interests than I do now. Now, I am getting tunneled right in. 

Q: I have talked to you about retirement before. 

A: I don’t know exactly what I would do. I would probably try to share what has happened to me with others. I do public speaking, corporate speaking. I think if I was retired I might pick that up a little bit more and share that part of success that I have had. What I think makes a difference in getting successful and the satisfaction that has happened in my life up a little bit more and share that part of success that I've had what I think makes a difference in getting successful and the satisfaction of what has happened in my life and everything and what I think you would do to get to that point. I would probably get into that a little bit more. Like a lot of the top coaches; once they quit coaching they go on the speaking tour. I guess that’s normal.

Q: Do you have a favorite race track?

A: I really, really like Santa Anita, believe it or not. I don't care for the traffic in L.A. and all of that. Obviously, Keeneland and Churchill are close, too. From a standpoint of working and making it work and getting the most out of the stable, you can’t beat Hot Springs, Oaklawn Park. It's a little bit country, but just to get a horse and keep a horse productive and running for the major purses that they have, that’s a pretty good spot to be. I don’t care for Florida at all. And I’m really not too crazy about New York, except for this place. 

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