When Wayne Lukas is inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Monday, his astonishing statistical achievements will be cited at length. The trainer has won 529 graded stakes races, a dozen in the Triple Crown series. His horses have earned more than $200 million in purse money and won 20 Eclipse Awards. His stable has led the nation in earnings in 14 of the past 16 years.
Lukas basks in the glory of these accomplishments, for he measures his worth as a trainer by his statistics. Yet his most significant feat is one that can't be expressed in numbers. After bursting into the thoroughbred business with ideas that most traditionalists decried, he proceeded to operate a stable as no one had before. With his spectacular success he revolutionized his sport.
When Lukas started training thoroughbreds full time in 1978 -- after dominating the quarter-horse game -- he audaciously flung down a gauntlet, scoffing at the traditionalists who operated according to maxims "chiseled in stone."
Until that time, almost every major racing stable was a regional operation; there were New York trainers, California trainers, Midwestern trainers. The only notable exception was Jack Van Berg, who supervised divisions in several states, mostly populated by mid-level racing stock. A trainer of high-quality horses was expected to maintain close day-to-day supervision over his charges -- watching them gallop, feeling their legs, observing how they ate. The ability to watch and detect subtle changes in an animal was the essence of horsemanship, and a trainer who didn't take this hands-on approach would be derelict in his duty.
Lukas defied this precept by creating the first national racing stable -- with divisions in California, New York, Kentucky and elsewhere. Of course, he couldn't be in all places at once and deliver the hands-on care his profession demanded. He hired assistants and consulted with them by telephone every day. Could such a system possibly work? It did because Lukas knows how to spot and nurture talent. Lady's Secret won the 1986 horse of the year title after being trained principally by Lukas's son, Jeff. Thunder Gulch captured the 1995 Kentucky Derby after being developed as a 3-year-old by then-unknown Todd Pletcher. Assistants such as Pletcher, Mark Hennig and Dallas Stewart have all made names for themselves since leaving the Lukas operation.
The system works, too, because Lukas is a superb manager. I once asked him (when we were on speaking terms) about the way he operates his stable's various divisions, and he responded as thoughtfully as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. "I think the absolute key to doing this is quality control," he said. "You cannot ever see a deviation of quality from one division to the other. The barns are the same. The feeding program is the same. This is what makes it easy to ship horses around the country. Most horses, when they ship, have to adjust. There's never an adjustment necessary in our divisions. It's the McDonald's principle. We'll give you a franchise and that franchise is going to be the same wherever you go."
With such a structure in place, Lukas was able to shuttle his horses around the country and effectively operate the first truly national training operation. He also challenged the orthodoxy of his profession in another, more profound way.
In every great horseman's list of commandments, this one is chiseled in stone: The Horse Comes First. A trainer is supposed to let a horse develop at his own pace; he shouldn't impose his will or ambitions on the animal. When an old-time trainer is asked where a horse is going to run next, the cliched reply is this: "The horse will tell me." Conservatism and patience were the most esteemed virtues in the profession. Woody Stephens craved Triple Crown glory as much as anybody, but while he was operating one of New York's classiest stables he went 11 years without sending a horse to the Kentucky Derby. Charlie Whittingham, the most patient trainer of them all, went a quarter of a century without a Derby starter. Lukas rejected the holy commandment.
The trainer is a friend and admirer of basketball coach Bob Knight; when a recruit comes to Indiana, Knight doesn't coddle him and tell him to develop at his own pace. He gets with the program or ships out. Similarly, Lukas's young horses are almost always forced to get with their coach's program -- aiming for the Breeders' Cup as 2-year-olds and the 3-year-old classics the next spring. Lukas has been represented in the Derby every year since 1981 (including several years when he shouldn't have been there). By aiming dozens of well-bred horses each year at the same objective, he has been able to score his most high-profile triumphs, but there has been a downside to his approach. His horses have suffered an alarming casualty rate.
Lukas's critics regularly harp on the fact that so many good young prospects are sacrificed to the trainer's ambition. The great horsemen like Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Woody Stephens doubtless look down from Heaven with despair at the way Lukas runs his operation and treats his horses. But Lukas has compiled statistics that dwarf the records of these legendary trainers, and on Monday he will have a Hall of Fame plaque alongside theirs.