In the 5 a.m. darkness that embraced the barns behind Santa Anita racetrack, the world according to trainer D. Wayne Lukas was revolving almost soundlessly, turning no less precisely than the planets in the heavens and the stars above.
Under bulb lights, in the stinging cold of the morning air inside the shed, horses came yawning to their doors and peered outside, waiting for room service. A small army of grooms spoke in hushed voices while busily slipping in and out of stalls, pitchforks in hand. Outside the barn—a Santa Anita showplace that Lukas has landscaped with grass and beds of yellow pansies and decorated with jockey statues and wrought-iron filigree—the dim silhouettes of 14 hot walkers led their horses quietly, circling an oval ring lined with buckets of drinking water. No radios were blaring music, and no urns were making coffee. Where there is a coffee pot, in the world according to Lukas, people tend to congregate and put off their work.
And work, efficiently performed and organized to the minute, is the pervading ethic of Barn 66, whose operation reflects the life, discipline and style of America's leading money-winning thoroughbred trainer for the last two years. This week, in perhaps his crowning achievement, Lukas's 3-year-old Tank's Prospect, will be one of the favorites for racing's biggest prize, the Kentucky Derby.
On this particular morning, Lukas swept into the barn through a back door, taking note of a derelict refrigerator as he breezed by. "What is that doing out there?" he asked a group of workers. "Well, it doesn't belong there. Take it across the road. I don't want a horse getting hurt by it." After a swing through the shed, he bounded into his office to the ringing of a telephone. It was Laura Cotter, his assistant in charge of his string of 40 horses at Hollywood Park, and for the next 10 minutes he detailed to her what he wanted done with them.
May 5, 1985
"Jog that one, yeah.... Gallop him two miles.... With Blue Sheep, I want to hose that ankle." Two minutes after he hung up, the phone rang again. Anticipating the call, Lukas said, "Hello, Kevin."
It was Kevin Rodine, his assistant trainer in charge of his string of 36 horses at Aqueduct in New York. One by one he went through the horses with Rodine. "Here's what I suggest you do with him: a) Put the flaxseed poultice on him for at least another two or three days, b) Get him out and walk him about 10 minutes in the shedrow every afternoon. Then I would go ahead and train that bugger. He's gonna have to fish or cut bait."
Five minutes after signing off with Rodine, the phone rang a third time. It was Barry Knight, the assistant in charge of his 22 horses at Bay Meadows, south of San Francisco. Again, Lukas anticipated the call.
"Good morning, Barry. Yeah.... How does the knee look on that horse?"
And on and on, horse by horse. By the time Lukas had overseen the training of three strings of thoroughbreds across the country, the first cock had not yet crowed at Santa Anita. Off the phone with Knight, Lukas huddled with his son, Jeff, his chief assistant in planning the morning orders for his grooms and exercise riders at Santa Anita. The two men had met, as they do every day, at 4:20 a.m. at an all-night doughnut shop. Now, at 5:45, clipboard in hand and looking like the high school and college basketball coach he once was, Lukas conferred with his riders to assign them mounts in the first set of horses to go to the track.
Moments later the grooms had the horses saddled and bridled and at the ready. The riders mounted them in the dark. Lukas strapped on a set of leather chaps and headed out the door.
"O.K., listen up!" said Lukas. "Bedo, you and Fernando take two-and-a-half [laps] together. Chris, we're gonna work a half-mile. You gotta drop him on the rail and kinda hold him together. Just breeze him. He's not up to much more than that. If he gets a little rubber-legged, don't ask him for too much. Jesse, go two solid. Martin? You're gonna jog three. Be careful. Don't let him get to playin' or he'll get rid of ya. Torey, backtrack to the middle of the backside, then gallop two and jog one. Got it?"
Got it. Lukas jumped on his own pony. It was approaching 6 a.m., and the track was about to open for workouts. "O.K., let's go," Lukas called out. "Start 'em down there." Off they walked, down the paths between the barns and toward the racetrack. As they neared the gap, the faint light of morning was breaking over the San Gabriel Mountains, and from somewhere back in the stable area the first cock was singing to it. Snug in his chaps, Lukas headed off to the clubhouse turn by himself.
No one ever rode into thoroughbred racing in the manner of Darrell Wayne Lukas, by himself or otherwise. There has never been anyone quite like him, no one even remotely close, in the long and colorful history of the sport—coming from where he came from and doing what he has done, and all of it in so short a time. Lukas, 49, has driven himself with the passion and intensity of a true believer, and what he has believed in most of all has been himself.
Twenty-eight years ago, Lukas was teaching school at the small Wisconsin farming town of Blair, coaching football, basketball and track. Two years later, while a graduate student in education at the University of Wisconsin, he was an assistant to freshman basketball coach Johnny Orr. As part of his master's thesis, Lukas invented a specially weighted basketball sneaker so ingenious and promising that Converse, the shoe company, bought the patent and produced and marketed the shoe.
In 1967, after six years of coaching basketball at Logan High School in La Crosse, Wis. and training quarterhorses part-time, Lukas quit his coaching job and threw himself into the horse business. In 1970, he won more quarter-horse races, 73, than any trainer in America, and for much of the '70s he dominated the sport. In 1975, when he scored his 150th win of the year, the feat was celebrated because it doubled the most wins ever scored by a quarter-horse trainer in a year. Along the way, Lukas has trained or had a hand in training 23 world champions.
"Wayne was the toughest man to beat when he was here," says Blane Schvaneveldt, his chief competitor in the quarter-horse business and the leader in that game today. "Tough in all brackets, claimers or good ones or whatever he had. A good horseman. A workaholic. He drives those thoroughbred guys crazy over there because they all want to sleep while he goes, goes, goes. He's too much for 'em."
In search of a new challenge, Lukas plunged into the thoroughbred business in 1978. "I'd won the NCAAs," Lukas says, "and I wanted to try it in the NBA." By 1983, he was the leading money-winning trainer in America as his horses hauled in $4,267,261. Last year he became the first thoroughbred conditioner in history to win $5 million in purses, when his far-flung strings of horses galloped home with a record $5,803,912 in earnings.
Lukas has turned out a succession of champions and multiple-stakes winners, including quite a few that he handpicked at yearling sales and trained as babies. His horses have won an Eclipse Award, the industry's top prize, for three straight years: the brilliant, ill-fated Landaluce, the 2-year-old filly champion of 1982 who died of a mysterious viral infection before she turned three; Althea, the 2-year-old filly champ of 1983; and Life's Magic, the leading 3-year-old filly of last year. Lukas undoubtedly had the finest 2-year-old colt in America in 1984, a flashy son of Alydar named Saratoga Six, but he broke down in a training accident last fall and had to be retired.
For somebody who has been in the thoroughbred business for only seven years, Lukas has had a phenomenal impact. He has become an object of envy and derision. He has been openly criticized for too often running fillies against colts, for running his horses too frequently, for running unsound horses, even for the manicured appearance of his barn. "It's important that you keep the barn clean and neat, sure," says rival trainer Willard Proctor, "but if he wants to go into the landscaping business, he should do that."
Indeed, Lukas has become such a popular target that criticizing the man and his methods has become something of a local pastime at Santa Anita. "You can't walk anywhere around here without hearing him get knocked," says David Cross, who trained Sunny's Halo to win the 1983 Kentucky Derby. "I've gotten so disgusted listening to it that I just turn and walk away from it now. He has done more for racing here in California than anybody in the last 20 years."
"People are envious," trainer John Gosden says. "He was at the top of one game. Then he came to the thoroughbreds, and in five years he was at the top of that game. There's a lot of jealousy."
Despite the champions Lukas has produced and the money and races he has won, some of his flat-racing colleagues still refer to him as that "former quarter-horse trainer." In the thoroughbred business, that's one step above being adjudged a beekeeper. Even worse, according to trainer John Nerud, who happens to be a Lukas admirer, some people in the business "probably still think of him as a basketball coach."
The fact is that D. Wayne Lukas—or Dee Wayne, as many call him—stands out in his sport in upbringing, style, dress, educational background and the level of ambition he brings to whatever he does. He is perceived as being a loner, a distant and even aloof man who neither drinks nor swears. But he's also a high-roller with immaculate clothes, blow-dried hair and an eloquence uncommon to this game.
In fact, no trainer is more glib. Ask Lukas what he looks for in a filly, since he has done so well with so many of them, and he says, "She should have a head like a princess, a butt like a washerwoman and walk like a hooker." Ask him about one of his better horses, Marfa, a bully who leaned on rival horses as if he were trying to put them over the fence: "He had that teenage defiance to him—'Go ahead and hit me, it don't hurt. You won't get to me.' Some of them you love and cuddle and bring along; others, you kick their ass."
His silver tongue is celebrated. Bobby Adair, at one time the leading quarter-horse rider in America, recalls the day at the Lukas barn when the trainer was holding forth for a bunch of visiting owners. As Lukas spoke, an old blacksmith was quietly shoeing a horse in the shed. At the end of Lukas's eloquent soliloquy, the trainer and the owners departed, whereupon the blacksmith said, "I hope I die the same day he does."
"Why is that?" asked Adair.
"Between now and when I die, no matter how bad I may screw up, when we reach them pearly gates, I know that Wayne can talk the both of us in."
But Lukas is more than just a sweet talker. Few, if any, of his colleagues have brought to the yearling sales ring a more acutely critical eye. True, the man has big money behind him—Bob French's oil money from Texas, Mel Hatley's construction money from Oklahoma, and former San Diego Chargers owner Eugene Klein's movie theater money from Southern California—but a big bankroll alone does not runners guarantee. Time after time—from Terlingua to Landaluce to Marfa to Life's Magic to Saratoga Six, to name but a few—Lukas has exhibited a sharp eye for horseflesh in the sales ring.
"When I first went to a sale with Wayne, I compared what he did with what my football scouts at the Chargers did," says Klein. "It was very similar to going with scouts to colleges, looking for athletes. The scouts looked for certain things. Legs, buttocks, those things. And I began to see what Wayne was looking for. I watched in amazement. A very, very educated eye when it comes to horseflesh. I saw him pick out Saratoga Six, a phenomenal colt till he got hurt, and look at Landaluce and Life's Magic. You don't pick out horses like that year after year if you don't have a talent for it."
Lukas's talent first took shape when he was growing up in Antigo, Wis., a small dairy and farming community in the northern part of the state, where the leaf-bearing trees begin to give way to pines. His father, Ted, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, drove heavy construction equipment and delivered milk. His mother, Bea, whose English and Irish ancestors had migrated to Wisconsin from Lexington, Ky., raised three children, of whom Wayne was the second-oldest, on the family's 10-acre farm, a few miles out of town.
Lukas grew up as a kind of Tom Sawyer of Antigo, but without the mischief. In bed by seven, he was up and gone at 4 a.m., tending to his calves, delivering papers on his white pony, a mare named Queenie, and exploring the dells and hollows of the nearby Menominee reservation. "I remember going off by myself on that pony," Lukas says. "I'd take Spam and eggs and build a fire and pitch a tent, dam up a creek and chase the trout in it. I'd flip them out with a forked stick and come back with the smell of smoke from the fire in my clothes."
At Easter he hawked bunnies in shoe boxes on Antigo's Main Street. One spring, when he was nine, he leased two acres of land from an uncle and planted string beans. At harvesttime he enlisted a gang of kids to help him bring in the crop and sold it for a sizable profit to a local cannery. He bought and sold horses at auction when he was so young, eight or nine years old, that when he raised his hand to bid, the auctioneer paid him no mind until Wayne's father said, "Take the kid's bid."
Horses and ponies became the center of his life. "He could be with a horse for five minutes and have him following him around," Bea Lukas says. "He seemed to speak their language." He raced his own pony at the Antigo County fairgrounds, and as he grew older he began racing her in fairs as far north as Eagle River and Rhinelander, near Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was at the fairgrounds, though, that Lukas spent most of his youth and got an education, watching oldtimers getting their broken-down horses ready to run on the leaky-roof circuits of the Midwest.
"The guys I was looking up to, my idols, were sitting there with $300 horses," he says. "The horses probably had bowed tendons as big as garden hoses, and I thought they were the second coming of Seabiscuit. I was just fascinated. I'd sit there and listen to the those guys tell stories by the hour, and I'd pick their brains."
Antigo was surrounded by mink ranches, and every year herds of wild horses were shipped in from the Dakotas to be slaughtered for mink feed. Lukas and a high school friend, Clyde Rice, now a trainer working out of Penn National, used to sit on a fence and pick out mustangs they would then buy and break for the sales ring.
"Clyde and I broke them and took them to sales," Lukas says. "We went down into Iowa and Nebraska in an old pickup truck with a two-horse trailer—drive all night—buying and selling and trading. We'd buy two at one sale, shampoo 'em, clip 'em, pull their manes, clean 'em up and sell 'em the next day. We'd go through Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we'd roll the money over two or three times and then try to beat the first check to the bank. I got streetwise in a hurry about horses. You learn to judge what a good one looks like and a bad one looks like and what somebody will pay and won't pay."
Lukas was a jock in high school but, by his account, not a good one. "I wanted to be an athlete so bad I could taste it," he says. "I was mediocre at everything and good at nothing. I was so intense that I became a student of the game of basketball. I studied what was going on. I had to have a reason why we picked and set the blind screen."
At the University of Wisconsin, Lukas studied phys ed on weekdays and hit the road in his pickup on weekends, looking for horses to buy and bring back to Madison to sell. His father recalls attending one of those sales with his son, who bid $360 for a good-looking quarter horse. The bidding stalled. When the owner rejected the bid, Lukas promptly upped his own offer to $500.
"What are you doing, bidding against yourself?" Ted Lukas asked. "It's money in the bank," Wayne replied. He left the sales ring and called a family that he knew was looking for a horse. "He bought him for $500 and turned around and sold him for $980," Ted says. "He was just so sure of himself." Lukas pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity, a notorious party house at Wisconsin, but he never joined in the merriment. "All they did was drink beer and pinch the girls," Lukas says. "I didn't have any time for that. Every weekend I'm throwing my saddle into my pickup, getting on my blue jeans and heading down the road. I was always working, always hustling, always trying to hit the sales."
Out of college, he began his two-year career as a teacher and coach at Blair, a community of 900. On the side he traded horses and raced them in Midwest bull rings. "At that point, I absolutely thought I was someday going to be a college basketball coach," Lukas says. "I loved it. All I cared about was coaching. I eventually studied all the systems, from Adolph Rupp to John Wooden."
In 1959, driven by his ambition to coach at the college level, Lukas quit Blair and returned to the University of Wisconsin for a master's degree in education, and it was there that he was an assistant to Orr. It was Orr who took Lukas's specially weighted sneaker to Converse and convinced the firm to produce it. The sneaker, to be used only in practice, had one ounce per shoe size added to it, making a player feel light of foot when he wore a regular sneaker during a game.
"Wayne was a very energetic guy, very intelligent, articulate and neat as hell," recalls Orr, now the head basketball coach at Iowa State. "He'd do anything you wanted. If you told him to have a practice, he'd have it all laid out, very organized. When I got my first head-coaching job, at Massachusetts, I couldn't take an assistant. If I could have, I'd have taken Wayne with me. I've read about how immaculate his barns are. That's him, boy! That's the way he is."
That is the way he has always been. Out of Madison, Lukas took over as head basketball coach at Logan High in La Crosse and taught a course called American Problems, a survey study of economics, civics and sociology. He ruled study halls with an iron hand. His basketball teams used an aggressive full-court press and never mouthed off to officials. In fact, Lukas had a rule: Whenever a Logan player took the ball out-of-bounds from an official, he was obliged to say "Thank you, Sir!" before putting it in play.
If you didn't play the game his way, you didn't play at all. "He was a real taskmaster," recalls Joe Thienes, Lukas's assistant at Logan. "A lot of self-assurance. He dressed like a man right of out of the Big Ten. He never took his jacket off on the sidelines. The gym could have been 90 degrees, and he could have died of heat prostration, but he always looked like he stepped out of Esquire."
"He yelled at us a lot," recalls Terry Erickson, one of his Logan players. "He was like a Bobby Knight. He demanded the same type of dedication and intensity. He was organized, prepared. When he came to Logan, everybody was sort of aimless, with no goals. He changed everybody's attitude. He didn't just coach you on the floor, either. He taught you how to run your life."
Logan was in a blue-collar neighborhood, and periodically Lukas had the hostess from the local Holiday Inn come to school to teach the players etiquette and grooming: how to tie a Windsor knot, how to order food in a restaurant, how to treat a waitress, how to tip, how to eat.
"She taught us what forks to use, what spoon was the soup spoon, how to hold your knife," Erickson says. "He got everybody matching sport coats at a local clothing store, and shirts and ties. If your shoes weren't polished when you boarded the bus, or if your tie wasn't tied properly, you didn't get on. He used to say, 'Just because you win doesn't make you a winner; just because you lose doesn't make you a poor person. It's how you prepare and dedicate yourself, how much you improve.' You went to a game, you felt you were on Mount Everest, even if you had three tubes of Clearasil in your pocket. He made you feel like a special person."
"Most of the other teachers in the school envied him because of the respect the students showed him, not only because of his athletics, but also his classroom work," Thienes says. "The others did not feel they could get close to him. He was on a pedestal as far as they were concerned. We felt he was on a level higher than us."
All during his high school coaching career Lukas also trained and traded quarter horses. He rose at 4 a.m. and drove the 60 miles to Rochester, Minn., where he trained a small string of horses. After supervising their morning work he jumped in his car and sped back over the Mississippi River to La Crosse, just in time to take a shower, change his clothes and head for class. In the basketball off-season, he often made the same trip again after school.
In summer, with school out, Lukas packed up his camper and headed to the Park Jefferson racetrack in South Dakota, a few miles above Sioux City, and raced his clients' horses. "I lived at Park Jefferson," Lukas says. "I backed my camper right up to the barn, shaved in the truck mirror every morning and brushed my teeth at the tap next to the barn. I'd go to the cleaners, get a clean white shirt and go to the races. I was dressed up: boots, blue jeans, shirt and a cowboy hat. I'd come back at night and take care of my horses. You'd get close to your horses and learn."
Lukas's barn at Park Jefferson was a showplace, landscaped with grass, shrubbery and flowers and the dirt raked in neat furrows. "He ran as classy a barn then, with the budget he had, as he does now," recalls Dick Valles, then the racing secretary at Park Jefferson. "He bedded his horses down first-class. I have old pictures of Park Jefferson, old winner's-circle pictures, and I look at them and he has on jeans, and it's totally amazing to me what he has done. I think, 'How could you come from there and go to the top of the roof like that?' "
Lukas got there in part by daring to be unorthodox in a game in which tradition binds men to the past. He has been willing to try almost anything legal, however seemingly minute, to get an edge. Hatley, a quarter-horse owner who followed Lukas into the thoroughbred business, recalls a hot day at Bay Meadows when he was standing outside Lukas's barn and an ice truck pulled up.
"All the horses picked up their heads and went to nickerin'," Hatley says, "and I noticed that all the grooms were getting buckets and dumping ice and running water in them." Hatley assumed that the grooms were preparing to ice the horses' legs, a common practice, and he asked Lukas if that was the case.
"You like to drink ice water when it's hot, don't you?" Lukas replied. "Well, so do the horses." Hatley had been around racetracks for years, and like most people he had never seen a horse served a bucket of ice water. He pressed Lukas further. "Some of these races are won by a photo finish," Lukas said. "If they enjoy fresh ice water on hot days, it might make 'em stick their noses out a little farther. I do every little thing I can to make these horses happy."
Adair, the quarter-horse rider, recalls the time he flew to Emporia, Kans. to ride an unraced 2-year-old named Trouble Straw for Lukas in the qualifying heat for a futurity. Lukas had begged him to come, saying, "He's a fast colt. Believe me, trust me." Fast he was, but also green as the grass outside Lukas's barn. Trouble Straw won his heat, but only after he shied and ducked so badly in front of the cheering crowds that Adair feared the colt was going to make a U-turn. "I'll take care of this," Lukas told him. "Be back here next week to get your picture taken."
There was a grade school near the track, and Lukas visited the school grounds and rounded up children at 50¢ a head to visit the empty grandstand. As Lukas walked the colt past the stands, he had the kids scream and holler, run back and forth and even throw paper cups. The next day, Lukas got out another roll of half-dollars, and brought in a new group of children for more of the same. In his next race, Trouble Straw blew away the field, running straight and true.
Greeting Adair in the winner's circle, Lukas said, "Told you I'd take care of it."
Lukas began raising eyebrows almost immediately after hitting the thoroughbred game, beginning when Effervescing won the $100,000 American Handicap on the grass at Hollywood Park on July 4, 1978. The horse had been sore when Lukas took him over, and the victory was regarded as a major training feat. One of his owners, Albert Yank, was euphoric over the triumph and already making plans to run the horse in Chicago later in the summer. That was when Lukas told him that he planned to run Effervescing right back, only five days later on the dirt, in the $100,000 Citation Handicap.
"Are you drinking your bathwater?" Yank exclaimed.
"Absolutely not," Lukas said. Neither was Effervescing. He won the Citation, and Dee Wayne was on his way. That was the same summer that Lukas sent out Terlingua, the comely daughter of Secretariat, to dust the colts in the Hollywood Juvenile. Lukas has never been shy about running his top fillies against colts, even though this cuts against the grain of traditional thinking, and he isn't averse to raising hackles in other ways. If he had a horse ready to run, he always ran it, against any horses he thought that it could beat. He did the same in the quarter-horse business, too. "He'd run his horses back every five days," says Schvaneveldt. "Wayne has a motto: 'When they're hot, they're hot. You better run 'em. Tomorrow they might be dead.' "
So it has been with Lukas, ever the opportunist, all through his career. His principal owner, Klein, could not feel more blessed. Klein has been in the game only two years, and in 1984 horses he owns outright or in part won 18 stakes races, including nine major events, and more than $2 million. That is nothing, really, compared to how some of Klein's horses have increased in value. He paid $375,000 for a one-sixth share of Saratoga Six in 1983, which grew to $2.8 million when the colt was syndicated for $16 million, and he says the half interest in Life's Magic he bought for $1 million in 1984 has more than doubled in value. Klein says he has already turned down better than $5 million for his Kentucky Derby hopeful, Tank's Prospect, the winner of the recent Arkansas Derby and a colt that Lukas bought as a yearling for Klein for $625,000.
"I've done phenomenally well, and it's all been Wayne's doing," Klein says.
Lukas propelled his way from Park Jefferson's rustic half-mile to Santa Anita's one-mile oval by drawing on an energy source unknown to ordinary men, even to most overachievers. "He works like a goddam dog," Nerud says. "He's a different piece of work from you and me. At dinner, he sits down and says, 'Bring me a Coke and a menu.' He eats in five minutes and wants to go home. You and I, we go out and sit around and have a drink and tell a few lies and have another drink and then have something to eat. It takes us two hours. I'm a hyper bastard, too. I'm worse than 90 percent of the people. But he flies right by me."
Lukas has been married three times, and he concedes that the first two marriages were casualties of the pace and intensity of the life he lives. He was married for the third time May 1, 1984, in a small church in Lexington during Kentucky Derby Week. Lukas was aiming two fillies, Althea and Life's Magic, toward the Derby, and as the newlyweds left the church, Shari Lukas asked her husband, "What do we do now?"
"Let's get back to Churchill Downs and graze those two fillies," he said. Shari has grown accustomed to that sort of thing, though she confesses to being astonished at one recent request of her husband. As he lay down one day, he said to her, "I'm going to take a nap. Wake me in seven minutes."
The Trainer's Daily Dozer
1. The value of time
2. The success of perseverence
3. The pleasure of working
4. The dignity of simpicity
5. The worth of character
6. The power of kindness
7. The influence of example
8. The obligation of duty
9. The wisdom of economy
10. The virtue of patience
11. The improvement of talent
12. The joy of originating