D. Wayne Lukas leads all modern-day trainers with four Kentucky Derby wins, the first coming via the front-running filly Winning Colors in 1988, and the Wisconsin native made an incredible mark during the late '80s and '90s, winning a record 13 Triple Crown races. The 77-year-old conditioner is no longer churning out champions like he did in his heyday, but he will look to return to prominence this year with Oxbow, a smashing 11 1/2-length winner of Saturday's Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds.
Lukas swept both stakes last weekend in the new Kentucky Derby scoring system, upsetting Monday's Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park with Will Take Charge. It was a big weekend for the Hall of Famer.
Speed is a virtue in the Lukas playbook and Oxbow possesses plenty of it. Teaching him to relax may need to become part of the equation -- the free-wheeling colt had everything his way early on a slow pace Saturday -- but Oxbow is progressing nicely at three and is well-bred for the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance.
Will Take Charge produced a more workmanlike victory versus a questionable cast, defeating Remington stakes winner Texas Bling by a hard-fought neck, but he gamely overcame a wide trip and is out of the outstanding racehorse and broodmare Take Charge Lady. His half-brother Take Charge Indy was relatively unaccomplished at two but really came on as a three-year-old, capturing last year's Grade 1 Florida Derby.
Lukas, a former teacher and basketball coach, has mentored some of Thoroughbred racing's top current trainers. His former assistants include Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig, George Weaver and Mike Maker.
"Those guys still call me 'coach,'" Lukas told Steve Haskin a few years ago. "And I considered myself a coach, as well as teacher."
The "coach" takes great pride in passing knowledge along to others, but Lukas is still fiercely competitive and never lacks confidence in his horses.
"You guys (the media) didn't even know he was in the race, did you? If you had to make a living handicapping, you'd all starve to death," Lukas said of Oxbow, who was listed at 6-1 on the Lecomte morning line. "When (jockey) Jon (Court) gets back here tomorrow (to his Oaklawn Park base) I'm going to make him give half the mount money back because he didn't have to do anything. All he had to do is hang on."
Oxbow broke on top and quickly seized control in the mile-and-70-yard Lecomte, entering the first turn on a short lead. The fractions were soft (:24 2/5 and :48 2/5)and Oxbow did not face pressure until the conclusion of the far turn when Heitai advanced from second to engage the pacesetter.
The pair hooked up at the top of the stretch but the challenge proved short-lived as Oxbow readily dismissed the 19-1 outsider and ran away in the final furlong.
Runner-up Golden Soul, a 7 1/4-length maiden winner at Fair Grounds on December 30 for Stewart, closed late to be a clear second in his stakes debut, a solid effort from the Perfect Soul colt who was last of nine after a quarter-mile. Fear the Kitten, the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club fifth-placer, closed belatedly from off the pace to get third.
None were in the same area code as Oxbow, who finished up superbly in the Fair Grounds stretch.
"This horse has a beautiful stride and a high cruising speed," Lukas said. "When you watch the replay you see his ears are pricked and he's just in a cruising speed the whole way around there.
His final time (1:43.30) was much faster than four other races Saturday at the distance (1.34 seconds better than the second-best), but the slow early fractions contributed to Oxbow's 94 BRIS Speed rating. While perhaps a bit underwhelming, that figure does represent a career-best for the improving son of Awesome Again.
Awesome Again captured the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs and Oxbow is out of Tizamazing, a full sister to Horse of the Year Tiznow, winner of the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Oxbow is bred similarly to last year's Grade 1 Haskell winner and Belmont Stakes runner-up Paynter, who is also by Awesome Again and out of another full sister to Tiznow.
Oxbow needed a few starts before breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs on November 25, netting a 90 Speed rating after leading wire-to-wire for a 4 3/4-length decision. Lukas then shipped him to Hollywood Park for the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity on December 15, but Oxbow drew an outside post (11) and weakened to fourth after chasing the pace wide.The CashCall could prove to be a key two-year-old prep race with the winning Violence, runner-up Fury Kapcori and third-placer Den's Legacy all meriting respect this year.
Oxbow took a nice step forward in the Lecomte, but it's still January and the competition will get steeper in the months to come. It will also be interesting to see how he fares when facing more pace pressure. But Oxbow stamped himself as a serious prospect Saturday and I am taking a glass half-full approach with the Lukas runner.
Oxbow is expected to point toward the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds on February 23.
Will Take Charge got hung out extremely wide from post 9 in the one-mile Smarty Jones and continued to travel well off the rail down the backstretch and the final bend. He was never more than a couple of lengths back stalking the pace during the early stages, advanced into contention on the far turn, and entered the short stretch at Oaklawn in a head-to-head battle with Texas Bling to his inside.
Will Take Charge took command late, prevailing by a hard-fought neck over Texas Bling, who saved second by a head over 9-5 favorite Always in a Tiz. The winner gained a measure of revenge after finishing second to Texas Bling in their previous outing, the December 9 Springboard Mile at Remington Park. Will Take Charge was overlooked at 12-1 in the Smarty Jones, with Texas Bling, a 128-1 winner of the Springboard Mile, leaving the starting gate at 18-1.
Texas Bling, a son of sprint sire Too Much Bling, lasted the one-mile distance on Monday, but it's difficult to envision him being a serious factor at longer distances on the Derby trail. Always in a Tiz didn't enjoy the best of trips, but he had the leaders in his sights turning for home and lacked the needed rally. The lightly-raced son of Tiznow may benefit from his first experience at a route, but he will need much more in the future.
By Unbridled's Song, Will Take Charge broke his maiden in his second career start, a seven-furlong maiden on Keeneland's Polytrack, but never fired when testing graded rivals in the Kentucky Jockey Club, finishing last of 13. His form looks much better this year, with his last two BRIS Speed ratings (93 and 91) towering above his prior dismal numbers, and while he still has a lot to prove from a class-standpoint, Will Take Charge rates as an up-and-coming colt.
Will Take Charge appeared to stumble in the gallop out after the finish line, but Lukas said the colt checked out fine afterward and mentioned the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 16 at Oaklawn as a possible target.
Derby Top 10:
Saturday's Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park is the lone points race this weekend and the 1 1/16-mile test has attracted some top Derby hopefuls in South Florida. Unbeaten two-year-old champ Shanghai Bobby will start from the rail among 10 rivals and likely second-favorite Frac Daddy is drawn to his immediate outside.
Grade 2 winner Bern Identity, Gulfstream Park Derby scorer Itsmyluckyday and Kentucky Jockey Club third-placer Dewey Square add further depth to what promises to be a dynamite race.