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Preakness 2024: D. Wayne Lukas spins tale of renewal Maryland racing could stand to emulate

Did D. Wayne Lukas sleep in the morning after Seize the Grey glided away from the competition to give him his seventh Preakness Stakes win?

Come on, now.

The 88-year-old trainer was awake before 3 a.m., worrying about a sesamoid fracture suffered by his other Preakness horse, Just Steel (with a pin inserted, he’ll be fine, Lukas said). He was at Pimlico Race Course by 5 a.m. to watch a perky Seize the Grey pace the shed row alertly and munch on some nearby grass. He was deep into several rounds of interviews by 6 a.m., thinking ahead — always ahead — about getting the whole operation back on the road to Kentucky the next morning.

Lukas was never one to pause and soak in a moment. His doggedness made him great in the first place, carrying him to the top of his profession in the 1990s, when he dominated the Triple Crown series, created a new model of training with thriving barns all around the country and rubbed plenty of people the wrong way with his brusque will to win at all costs.

He’s a more graceful public figure now, comfortable in his role as thoroughbred racing’s elder statesman and grateful for the affection of old rivals such as Bob Baffert and Kenny McPeek, both of whom hugged him after Seize the Grey beat their horses Saturday.

But that same old rage to win burns in him still. As Lukas said in the afterglow of Seize the Grey’s victory, these big races are the reason he still rises before dawn every morning to go to his barn in Kentucky.

“Don’t let that sofa pull you down,” he said. “It’s a little easy when that alarm goes off to say, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know if I really want to do this today.’ Erase that.”

There is a greater message to take from Lukas’ first Preakness win since 2013.

On the one hand, there’s comfort in watching the grand old man of a sport reclaim his place in the sun, perhaps for the final time. As we heard Baffert and McPeek say after the race, if they were going to lose to anyone, they wanted it to be Lukas.

Baffert, 17 years Lukas’ junior and the only trainer with more Preakness wins, marveled, “I’m in awe of what he pulled off.”

2024 Preakness Stakes race | PHOTOS

Yes, it’s easy to talk about Lukas as a lion in winter, fending off the younger members of the pride.

On the other hand, like the Triple Crown series itself, he’s a creature of spring, a monument to renewal.

Though he had no desire to stop, Lukas appeared to be done as a top trainer a few years back. The titanic owners who funded his searches for the next crops of star yearlings had passed away. He no longer ran as many horses, and the ones he did run didn’t win as much. He didn’t have the talent to go to the big summer races at Saratoga. He wasn’t on hand for the Preakness last year.

But Lukas never stopped believing that if he found the right owners, his gifts for spotting and nurturing young racehorses were as keen as ever. And he did find those backers. And he is running and winning again.

That inexhaustible push rubs off on the people around him.

Jaime Torres didn’t know anything about the jockey trade when he happened to watch a race on television in his native Puerto Rico five years ago. It just looked fun. After learning the ropes in school, Torres made his way to Kentucky and introduced himself to Lukas outside the trainer’s tack room one morning. Each day, he came back, just hoping to get on one of Lukas’ horses for some exercise work. His persistence sparked with the older man, who gave him a few shots and liked the way Torres handled his opportunities.

Only once did he chew the polite young rider out, and that was because he felt Torres accepted defeat instead of fighting to move up as far as possible.

“I told him, I said, ‘If you can be fourth, you better be fourth,'” Lukas said. “If you can’t be fourth, be fifth. If you can’t be fifth, be sixth. I got a legal pad out and I showed him the percentages. This 5% [difference] to that owner, today that was $6,000. That’s a training bill plus. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll revive ’em in the morning. You ride them.'”

After Torres rode Seize the Grey to victory in the Pat Day Mile two weeks ago, he said he could hear Lukas’ urging voice in his head all the way around.

On Saturday, Lukas watched Torres settle Seize the Grey into a beautiful rhythm over the “deep and sticky” mud at Pimlico. It was the 25-year-old’s first ride in the Triple Crown series. Lukas has won 15 Triple Crown races. But they celebrated together, bound by their refusal to take no for an answer.

It’s facile to suggest any one story will patch over what ails thoroughbred racing in general and the Preakness in particular.

At this time last year, we had to balance Baffert winning his eighth Preakness with the fact that another of his horses, Havnameltdown, died after a terrible accident on the undercard.

Always at Pimlico there are questions about the crumbling facility with its inoperable elevator and condemned section of grandstand. The General Assembly approved a $400 million plan to demolish what’s there and build something better in its place. Those who crafted this plan understand public skepticism given the many stops and starts in past quests to resurrect Pimlico. There really are fewer impediments this time. The hope is that wrecking balls will swing before next year’s Preakness and the event will return to a spiffier home in 2027 after a year at Laurel Park.

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Could a new venue correlate with a new sense of momentum for the state’s signature race, which has lost money in recent years as crowds have dwindled to 40% of what they were before the covid pandemic? Those charged with creating a path forward say they will seek a different model than the entertainment spectacles put on by The Stronach Group, with expensive headlining acts such as Bruno Mars last year and Jack Harlow on Saturday. Can the Preakness reach a brighter future by revisiting its past? We’ll see.

Again, it would be too easy to say Lukas’ win is a perfect metaphor for what needs to happen with Pimlico and the Preakness, but there is a certain thematic serendipity to it.

He needed to win one of these races to feel like himself again, and the joke’s on you if you think it’s a capstone. Lukas took Seize the Grey’s victory as a sure sign that his stable is again revving up. He’ll probably take his Preakness champion on to the Belmont Stakes. And he likes his 2-year-olds even better than these 3-year-olds.

As he sat outside his barn Sunday morning, wearing a D. Wayne Lukas Racing ball cap in place of the showier white cowboy hat he favors on race day, he was asked if he expects to be back in the same chair, at age 89, come next Preakness.

“You’re damn right,” he said. “If I’m not, they need to fire me.”