LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Wayne Lukas saddled a horse in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, it was the 13th time he had done so. No previous trainer had ever saddled 12 horses in America's greatest horse race without a victory.
"Sure it bothered me," the Hall of Fame trainer replied when asked this week whether his futility grated at the time. "When you're on an airplane and the person seated next to you finds out you're a horse trainer, the first thing they ask is, "Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?" No matter how many races you've won, to most people that's the only race that counts. Until you've won it, there's a big hole in your resume."
The filly Winning Colors filled that hole in Lukas' resume with a front-running victory 25 years ago, and when he saddles two horses in Saturday's 139th Run for the Roses he'll be seeking his fifth Derby victory, which would move Lukas into sole possession of second place all-time among trainers. (Actually it would tie him for first, but more on that later.) He would also become the oldest trainer to win the Derby, surpassing the late Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 when he won the Derby in 1989 with Sunday Silence.
Lukas' other Derby victories were with Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone ('96) and Charismatic ('99). The 77-year-old trainer will be seeking victory No. 5 with Will Take Charge, who drew the No. No. 17 post position, and Oxbow, who will start from the No. 2 post. They are 20-1 and 30-1 respectively in the morning line. Orb is the 5-1 morning-line favorite in a field of 20 3-year-olds set to contest the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance.
"I think they both have a chance," Lukas said. "This Derby is wide open. I can make a case for 10 or 12 of them to win it. I won't name them. These other trainers are friends of mine, and I don't want one of them to come up to me and ask, "Why didn't you mention my horse?" But I believe both of my horses are legitimate contenders. Besides, Charlie Whittingham once told me never to say anything bad about a horse until he's been dead for 10 years."
Will Take Charge, a strapping chestnut son of Unbridled's Song, is 3-1-0 in seven starts and has earned $545,371. He hasn't raced since winning the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 16. That 49-day layoff bothers some (no horse has won the Derby off such a long layoff at least since 1929), as does the fact that Will Take Charge has never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles (the last horse to win the Derby without first prepping at farther than 1 1/16 miles was Middleground in 1950).
"Those things don't bother me," Lukas said. "This horse has several Derby winners in his pedigree. I don't think the distance will be a problem. As for the layoff, I'll tell you after the race."
Another concern is an off-track, which seems likely. Local forecasts are predicting a 70 percent chance of rain Saturday, and Will Take Charge's only effort on a track rated "sloppy" resulted in a sixth-place finish, beaten by 18 lengths, in Oaklawn's Grade II Southwest Stakes on Feb. 13.
"I don't think it was the slop so much as the circumstances of the race that day," Lukas said. "He came back and won (the Rebel), and he's been doing great ever since."
Oxbow, a compactly built bay son of Awesome Again, is 2-1-1 in nine starts and has earned $383,500. He finished second by a head to Will Take Charge in the Rebel, then finished fifth of 10 in Oaklawn's Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 13. On that day he broke tardily and then encountered traffic trouble. Oxbow has never raced on an off track, but Lukas is confident that he can handle it.
"Oxbow could run over crushed Coke bottles," Lukas said. "He's just tough. An off track wouldn't bother him at all."
With a lack of early speed in this year's Derby, there are those who believe that Oxbow could be on the early lead because he's shown speed in previous races.
Lukas acknowledged that there's not as much speed in this Derby as in previous runnings, but has been around long enough to know not to reveal his strategy before the race.
"The inside post sort of limits his options, but I don't think he'll be on the lead," he said. "He'll be close, maybe two to three lengths off the pace."
Cary Golde, a noted Louisville handicapper, predicts that Oxbow will be on the lead, however.
"And if they let him get away with an uncontested lead, I could see him being very tough," Golde said. "I'm going to bet on him. Besides, the price is right."
Golde also referenced the "good story theory" that come into play in the Kentucky Derby.
"You have Lukas seeking his fifth Derby, (jockey) Gary Stevens coming out of retirement and seeking his fourth Derby victory, and Oxbow is owned by Calumet Farm (which has won the Derby a record eight times)," Golde said. "Now that would make a great story."
Stevens, 50, will be riding in his 19th Derby but first since 2005. He returned to riding in January following a seven-year retirement during which he was a racing analyst on television.
"I think he's riding better than when he walked away," Lukas said. "His knees were bothering him then. He's healthy now. And his experience is big."
Stevens, who has won the Derby twice for Lukas (aboard Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch) as well as with Bob Baffert's Silver Charm in 1997, is excited about his 19th Derby.
"It never gets old," he said. "And it's exciting going in there knowing you have a chance."
-- Ben A. Jones, who trained for Calumet Farm, is the all-time leader with six Derby victories, but that number deserves to have an asterisk because his son, Jimmy Jones, trained Citation, the 1948 Derby winner who is credited to Ben. "We ran him under B.A.'s name so he could tie Derby Dick Thompson for the most Derby victories with four," Jimmy told me in 1998. "But I trained Citation."
Before Citation Ben won the Derby with Lawrin (1938), Whirlaway ('41) and Pensive ('44), and he went on to win twice more (with Ponder in '49 and Hill Gail in '52). Jimmy is credited with two Derby scores, Iron Liege in 1958 and Tim Tam in '59.