Friday, July 29, 2011

Long Live the King: D. Wayne Lukas

--By Christina Bossinakis

   Heading up to beautiful Saratoga Springs, NY, last week, I imagined the trip would prove to be memorable. In fact, it turned out to be epic. With this year’s induction ceremony only a few weeks away, my mission was to have a sit down with the King himself, D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas, who was himself inducted in 1999, also trained one of this year’s inductees, champion Open Mind. For those of you who don’t already know (and there probably aren’t many of you!), I have been one of his most ardent fans since the late 80's. So the trip was exciting to me on so many levels. I arrived at the track just after 6 a.m., and the big man himself was already out on the Oklahoma track. His temporary absence gave me a chance to get the lay of the land. As advertised, barn 83–situated right across from fellow Hall of Famer Nick Zito’s establishment–was landscaped to perfection, punctuated by a lawn jockey prominently displayed amidst a lovely flower bed.
   As I was having a look around, an obviously well-bred Australian Shepard was haltered, but given a very long rein, out front. Being the dog lover that I am, I immediately headed over to play with the youngster. Wrong move. In his excitement (and I later realized in the absence of his master), he almost took me down. Only 4-months old and full of sass, Boomer was just about to run off with my sunglasses (thankfully I’ve had plenty of experience with canines) when I heard a voice that I would recognize with both ears closed. It said with an air of amusement, "Don’t you hurt my dog." And so the King returns to the kingdom. Dressed in a style I like to call ‘Cowboy Chic,’ Wayne was astride a ‘pony’ that is probably valued at more than many of the Thoroughbreds stabled at that track. White cowboy hat. Check. Bad ass chaps. Check. Crisp pressed shirt. Check. I have to say, Wayne Lukas never disappoints.
   A quick side story: the first time I met Lukas was back in 1994, the year Holy Bull won the Travers S. Lukas took the King’s Bishop with Chimes Band a couple of races after the big one, and I happened to be down by the winner’s circle for the presentation. I have to admit, I was a bit star struck, so I didn’t have the guts to go up and ask for his autograph. Thankfully, my cousin did. As one might imagine, I was totally frozen and could barely utter a word (I know many of you are shocked), but I often think back to this moment, because it turned out to be a defining moment for me as a racing fan. We all have to wonder if we have the opportunity to meet a celebrity from any industry, whether that person will live up to our expectations or whether we will be sadly disappointed. With no cameras rolling or shutters clicking (except for a great picture of us, courtesy of the aforementioned cousin), D. Wayne was as charismatic and charming as I had always seen him on tv. I’m not sure how a negative response from somebody I so admired would have affected the trajectory of my life and my career, but I can say with certainty that was one of only a handful of experiences that cemented my passion for the sport.
   But back to last week’s visit. At just before 8 a.m., the temperature was already hovering at around 80 degrees (hello Saratoga, nice to see you again). I went down to the Oklahoma track to watch a few of the Lukas horses take to the track and was quite impressed by the military-like timing and thoughtful scheduling that went into planning the day’s program. I wandered around the backside for a bit, waiting for my 9 a.m. appointment with The Man. It’s really pretty amazing how many former Lukas assistants I bumped into during a single tour around the backstretch. It's a testament to his ability to pick out people of quality and ability, I think. Back at barn 83 at the appointed time, I am invited into a little stand-alone office situated directly across from the main barn. Not sure many trainers have their own little private quarters like that, however, that luxury was obviously well earned. With Boomer tucked in quietly near his master’s feet, Wayne made a couple of quick calls and off we went. So, I proceeded to pick the brain of the man that I had so admired all these years, and during our chat, maybe a half dozen people, including members of the press, vied for his attention. Committed to the task at hand, we ran up the time to an hour (I could have listened to those stories for days!) and talked about everything ranging from his Hall of Fame induction to number of his champions and former owners. Winning Colors, Lady’s Secret, Open Mind, Serena’s Song, Landaluce, Tabasco Cat, Charismatic, Grand Canyon, and of the human persuasion Gene Klein, the Lewises, William Young– the man is a legend. Too much ground was covered during our conversation to include here, however, a few of those stories will be trotted out in the days leading up to Open Mind’s Hall of Fame induction on Aug. 12. Stay Tuned.

1 comment:

RPandWP said...

Great blog! My husband and I (former owners-breeders) had the privilege long ago of watching Wayne (at Saratoga) teach his son, Jeff, how to evaluate horses that would be in the sale the next day. This was before Jeff's accident with Tabasco Cat. We also had breakfast one morning at a table next to Gene Klein and his wife the day after Lady's Secret lost at Saratoga (she bolted). Wonderful memories!