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Still training, still winning, 88-year-old D. Wayne Lukas does it again at Preakness

BALTIMORE — The racetrack is a crumbling relic, long past its time, held together by fading history and supported by raw emotions, neither of which is a useful substitute for new support beams and fresh concrete. Its historic wooden grandstand, which bore witness to greats from Seabiscuit to Secretariat to Sunday Silence and every one of the 13 Triple Crown winners, was condemned five years ago and is now covered by a green canvas tarp that's metaphorically a funereal shroud for the track and if you squint just a little, the entire sport. Over the next two years it will be demolished into dust and the venerable Preakness will lurch forward into an uncertain future.

The trainer is 88 years old, long past his prime, too (but most definitely not his time), arthritic in more places than not, held together by titanium, piss and vinegar, and a single-minded passion that is not just rare, but unimaginable, six decades on. He walks with a cane that he says he hates but which his wife says he actually loves, and won't walk with it away from the sport he once ruled from his private jet and his helicopter with strings of horses that stretched from New York to California. He rises every morning at 3:30, reaches his barn at 4:30, and then uses a little stepstool to climb aboard his pony and trots off fearlessly into an unpromised future that he defines only as today.

So it was that the creaky old racetrack and the creaky old man found each other at a few minutes past seven Saturday evening in Maryland, just as a daylong drizzle paused and the sun peeked from behind pale purple clouds. So it was that Pimlico and D. Wayne Lukas shared just less than two minutes and just more than one lap in the slop and together made each other meaningful. Each was too old, made young for a day -- and if you squint some more, the entire sport was, too.

It was a gray (or should it be grey?) 3-year-old named Seize the Grey who brought them together, sprinting to the lead from the gate under 25-year-old Puerto Rican jockey Jaime Torres, controlling the pace for every splashing, muddy step of the 149th Preakness's 1 3/16 miles and finishing a stout and unthreatened 2 1/4 lengths clear of favorite and Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan at 10-1 odds, third-longest in the eight-horse field. As a bookkeeping matter, Seize the Grey's victory ensures that there will be no 14th Triple Crown winner this year, and that there will be no heated discussion of whether that Triple Crown would have been genuine, given that this year's (and next year's) “Belmont” Stakes is being run at Saratoga Race Course while Belmont is being rebuilt, and at a distance of 1 1/4 miles instead of the Belmont's customary and taxing 1 1/2 miles. So, none of that, at least until next year.

(One other piece of bookkeeping: Seize the Grey's win spared racing a second consecutive discomfiting by trainer Bob Baffert, who is in the third year of a ban from Churchill Downs and the Derby, but last year at the Preakness beat Derby winner Mage with National Treasure, in some manner of thinking diminishing the Derby. That was a real possibility at Pimlico, but Baffert scratched morning line favorite Muth with a fever, and his Imagination finished seventh in the eight-horse field).

But the race was much bigger than bookkeeping. Closer to five decades ago than four (1978) Lukas, a former high school basketball coach who changed careers to train quarter horses, switched to thoroughbreds. Two years later he won the Preakness with Codex, and in the ensuing two decades transformed his training enterprise into a sprawling, nine-figure corporate machine. But by the mid-2000s, with Lukas into his 70s, the big wins became rarer and the sport prepared a sendoff. Lukas did not get the memo. His first big return came when he won the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow (and jockey Gary Stevens, also from the front).

The sport prepared another sendoff. Lukas didn't get that memo, either. In 2022, he won the Kentucky Oaks with filly Secret Oath, and then took a shot with her in Preakness. She finished fourth. Lukas was 86 years old. Another farewell unfolded. Lukas would have none of it. And he will have none of it now. He now has won the Preakness seven times, one less than Baffert; and has 15 Triple Crown race wins, two fewer than Baffert.

"Wayne's gonna catch me," said Baffert minutes after the race, and then pivoted earnestly. "Wayne... is.... The... Man. I'm so happy for him. There's never been a better horseman. He works so hard, and he's a legend, and he just won't give up. Ever. He goes into every race like he's gonna win." Pause. Can't be too earnest. "The only thing that's changed," said Baffert. "Is he does it sitting down now, instead of standing up."

Ken McPeek, who trains Mystik Dan, said, "Wayne is amazing. What can you say? Stole it on the front." (That's horse racing talk for putting a horse in front and letting him control the pace, all the way around). "Wayne said he was gonna go. Obviously, speed held up."

Not long after the race, Lukas said on a press conference dais, wearing the same type of white Stetson he's worn for most of those 46 years, wearing aviator glasses that turn dark in a bright light, but not yesterday, and a navy-blue windbreaker with his stable's logo on the breast. Lukas is many things, but he is rarely emotional, a cowboy to the end. But here was a little crack, showing near the end of his ninth decade on Earth. "One of the things that was very significant to me today," Lukas said, "And maybe it's because I'm getting a little bit older, but as I came out of the grandstand and out across the racetrack, every one of the guys that were in that race stopped and hugged me and gave me a handshake. That meant more to me than any single thing. Baffert, Kenny McPeek, right down the line."

The story of the win was mostly Lukas, but not only Lukas. Seize the Grey is owned by a horse partnership company called MyRacehorse, which seeks to involve small investors in horse ownership. Seize the Grey was offered to prospective investors at a price of $127 per share and wound up being purchased at auction for $300,000 by 2,570 owners, which is, 2,568 more than Mystik Dan. Michael Behrens of MyRacehorse said somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of those owners were in attendance. Lukas put it best: "That's what I get paid for, to let them live the dream."

There's more: Torres's victory in the Preakness was the first Grade I win of his nascent career, equivalent to a tennis player's first big win coming at the U.S. Open. Seize the Grey had run nine times under four different riders; he fell short in his bid to make the Derby when he finished a poor seventh in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland a month before the Derby. Nik Juarez rode him in that race, as he had in his two previous starts as a 3-year-old. Torres had ridden Seize in three of his five starts last year as a 2-year-old. Lukas decided to run Seize the Grey in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day and put Torres back on him. He won that race by 1 1/4 lengths, from off the pace.

"I had phone calls from six agents after he won the Pat Day Mile," said Lukas. "You know it's a tough business, because they said, 'You're going to change riders for the big one, aren't you?' I said, 'Not a chance, he's staying right there.'" Torres tried to explain his emotions: "Can you imagine you're watching a movie and this horse is the main character, but just think [it's not a movie], it's real? I can't explain it."

Before the starting gate clanged open at 7:05 p.m., the race had been freighted with negativity, which has become the norm at Pimlico, because the state of the facility and the political unrest that has surrounded it for years. It is difficult to convey the state of the Pimlico plant to anyone who hasn't seen the facility in a few decades; but it is certainly on the very short list of the worst host facilities for a major American sporting event, lacking any major upgrades for at least half-century. Now it is officially toe-tagged.

Under the terms of an agreement long imagined, but signed only on May 9 by Maryland Governor Wes Moore and Belinda Stronach, who runs racing operations for The Stronach Group, ownership of Pimlico transfers to the State of Maryland, which will pay Stronach to operate the Preakness. That much is certain. The rest is a combination of murky and aspirational, with the potential to revitalize an important piece of the American racing culture, although that is surely the upper end of potential outcomes. Much is uncertain.

Some portion of the seating area, most likely the main, glassed-in grandstand and clubhouse will remain temporarily erect while Pimlico hosts the 150th Preakness next May, and torn down while Laurel Racetrack, 20 miles south of Baltimore, hosts the 2026 Preakness (much as Saratoga is hosting the Belmont Stakes this year and next, although Laurel is no Saratoga). The plan is for the Preakness to return to a new Pimlico in 2027, which is the aspirational piece. It is the plan that will seem real when it happens.

But so often the sport and its athletes provide sustenance where its keepers don't. Such as in the sensational, nose-nose three-horse finish in Mystik Dan's Derby win. Saturday, bettors wondered if Baffert and 53-year-old Italian jockey Frankie Dettori would be the ones to steal the race from the front, which is a favored Baffert tactic. Imagination broke sharply and came alongside Seize the Grey in the front stretch, first time. Torres says he looked at Dettori. "He said 'Well, you go,' and I went. I took the lead. And he just relaxed for me."

The flip side was Dettori and Imagination: "Couldn't get him to relax."

Seize the Grey stayed clean, not a speck of mud on his chest. Mystik Dan and Catching Freedom gave frantic chase in the stretch. "From the quarter [pole] on to the finish," said Torres, "He gave me everything he had." In an outdoor box above the finish line, Lukas watched. He has lived for this. Through five marriages, through the death of his son, Jeff, and of wealthy owners who became his friends; through the remorseless process of growing old. Two years ago, for a story in advance of Secret Oath's Preakness, former Lukas Racing business manager David Burrage told me, "Even when we had it rolling, at the top of our game, Wayne was never really into all the hoopla. Sure, everybody enjoys the limelight. But Wayne just wanted to train horses. He wanted to make them better. That’s who he is. That’s been his singular focus. There are negatives to that. It’s tough on married life. Tough on family life.”

(And this: Dave Grening of the Daily Racing Form reported early Sunday morning that Lukas's other Preakness starter, Just Steel, who was one of three horses running two weeks after the Derby, suffered a condylar fracture (just above the ankle) in his right foreleg. Just Steel will undergo surgery and survive.)

Saturday evening, Lukas sat at the top of his game. Yet he was unchanged, living not by our calendar, but by his own. "We are loaded for next year," he said. "We've got some outstanding 2-year-olds. Can't wait to get home and start breezing them." Send him off at your own risk.

(Story updated May 19 at 10:51 a.m. ET to include Just Steel news.)