40 Years After First Win, Lukas Hunting More Apple Blossom Glory

April 12, 2023

D. Wayne Lukas leads Apple Blossom favorite Secret Oath to the track (Coady Photography)

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of D. Wayne Lukas’ first career victory at Oaklawn, which means the Hall of Fame trainer could come full circle this weekend at a place he calls home for roughly six months each year.

Miss Huntington – Lukas’ first career Oaklawn starter – won the $250,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) April 13, 1983. Lukas, 87, bids for another Apple Blossom victory Saturday when he sends out millionaire multiple stakes winner Secret Oath in the $1 million Grade 1 race for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

Miss Huntington, who was based with Lukas in Southern California, came from the clouds to win the Apple Blossom by a half-length under future Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez. The 1 1/16-mile race, which attracted a bulky field of 13, was run over a sloppy track.

“We were just starting to ship all over the world and run on everybody’s track,” Lukas said Tuesday morning at Oaklawn. “We brought her in here. She was by a horse called Torsion and we thought she was a sprinter, so Jeff, my son (and assistant), and I decided that maybe we should stretch her out and we could maybe steal it, being that she was fast. So, what happened? Turning up the backside, she’s last by a block. We end up winning it and Jeff looks at me and says, ‘That’s the last time we’ll sprint that one.’ ”

Miss Huntington, campaigned by the now-deceased San Diego Chargers owner Eugene Klein, sparked D. Wayne Lukas’ 40-year love affair with Oaklawn. Lukas, then with divisions across the country, returned the following year to win the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) with Althea, a filly, and won 35 races in 1987 to capture his first Oaklawn training title. Lukas has been a fixture at Oaklawn since 2005 and claimed his second local training title in 2011 with 27 victories.

“During the ’80s and ’90s, we kept analyzing where we could be the most effective for our owners and set up a stable, which would give every horse in the barn a chance to win,” Lukas said. “We took the philosophy that not all of them could handle Santa Anita or Belmont, so we’re trying to find tracks that we thought were they could be really effective. This one (Oaklawn) really fell into that. This was a perfect fit for us. To be honest with you, when we came here, we fell in love with it. Randy Bradshaw was my assistant at that time. When I moved him away from here and put him with another division, he ended up buying a house here. He bought a house on the lake. Everybody that we’ve ever sent in here in a management capacity has fallen in love with Oaklawn. I love it here. I just bought another house. You don’t buy houses when you’re 87 years old. You’re supposed to sell them.”

Lukas said he rented during the last two Oaklawn meetings after selling his home just off Oaklawn property. Lukas now has another home, purchased in January, in the heart of the historic Trivista neighborhood that straddles Oaklawn’s north parking lot.

“We’re having more damn fun with this one,” Lukas said. “This one, to me, of the houses that we’ve had, I like this one about as well as any. This house has a real warmth to it. I’ve used one tank of gas in the last two months. My life is in a four-block area.”

Miss Huntington marked the first of Lukas’ 52 career stakes victories to date Oaklawn. Overall, Lukas (351) is the ninth-winningest trainer in Oaklawn history. He has 15 victories this season – his highest total since 2011 – including the $350,000 Azeri Stakes (G2) March 11 with Secret Oath.

Milestone Watch

Steve Asmussen is approaching even more milestones (Coady Photography)

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen recorded two victories last Saturday to move closer to becoming Oaklawn’s all-time winningest trainer.

Asmussen, via a disqualification for interference shortly after the start involving other horses, won the fifth race with Eternally Grateful, the original second-place finisher. Eternally Grateful ($15.80) was ridden by Asmussen’s son, Keith. Steve Asmussen won the seventh race with favored Lark’s Mischief ($4.20), who was ridden by Isaac Castillo.

The double pushed Asmussen’s career Oaklawn victory total to 859. Only the late Bob Holthus (867) has more career training victories at Oaklawn. There are 12 racing days remaining in the 2022-2023 Oaklawn meeting.

Asmussen has nine horses entered Friday at Oaklawn, 14 Saturday and six Sunday.

Asmussen has collected a record 12 Oaklawn training titles and has a record 99 career stakes victories in Hot Springs. Asmussen has a combined four runners entered in Oaklawn’s two stakes races Saturday – Cogburn, Skelly and Payne in the $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses at 6 furlongs and Clairiere in the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

Asmussen has at least one stakes victory at every Oaklawn meeting since his first in 1996.

Diodoro and Hartman Look Ahead

Next-race plans are pending for Airtime and Two Eagles River, who finished fifth, and seventh, respectively, in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles April 1.

Airtime was beaten 5 ¼ lengths by Angel of Empire in the Arkansas Derby, which was Oaklawn’s fourth and final Kentucky Derby points race. Airtime was only a length behind second-place finisher King Russell.

“He ran well,” Diodoro said. “Probably needs to take a step down, but he came out of the race good. We’re not sure yet what we’re going to do next.”

Diodoro said Airtime could be considered for the $200,000 Bath House Row Stakes (formerly the Oaklawn Stakes) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles April 22. The winner, providing it is Triple Crown nominated, will receive automatic entry into the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, May 20 at Pimlico.

The Arkansas Derby marked Airtime’s second start for Diodoro and owner Randy Howg, who claimed the horse for $50,000 out of a 10 ¼-length victory in a 1-mile starter/optional claimer Jan. 29 at Oaklawn. Airtime, in his first start for Diodoro, was a first-level allowance winner at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 18 at Oaklawn.

The speedy Two Eagles River carried the lead into the stretch of the Arkansas Derby before tiring to finish 8 ¼ lengths behind Angel of Empire. Two Eagles River, exiting a front-running four-length first-level allowance victory at 1 mile Feb. 19, was bet heavily moments before the Arkansas Derby, driving his odds down to 8-1.

“He let me down,” trainer Chris Hartman said. “I was pretty pumped up. I thought the horse was ready for a big run and he let us down a little bit. I thought he was in a good spot, myself. Had no excuses, really.”

Like Airtime, Two Eagles River is nominated to the Bath House Row Stakes.

Finish Lines

Jockey Mitchell Murrill escaped serious injury after he was unseated shortly after the start of last Saturday’s fifth race at Oaklawn. Murrill fulfilled his remaining engagements on the card and is named on horses the next three racing days at Oaklawn. … Next-race plans are pending for multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Pretty Birdie, trainer Norm Casse said Tuesday afternoon. Pretty Birdie was beaten 20 lengths in the inaugural $250,000 Matron Stakes for older female sprinters March 31 at Oaklawn after pressing a rapid early pace over a muddy surface. “Looking at her form, any time she runs on an off track she’s not as brilliantly fast,” Casse said. “So, it’s a throw out. She’s perfectly sound. Came out of the race well. No real idea where I’m going to run her next.” … Record-setting Market Analysis moved closer to his 2023 debut by working 6 furlongs in 1:13 last Friday morning at Oaklawn for trainer Robertino Diodoro. Market Analysis, eighth in last year’s $400,000 Oaklawn Mile (G3) for older horses, hasn’t started since setting a 7-furlong track record (1:20.91) in the $50,000 Spangled Jimmy Handicap July 9 at Century Mile in Canada. Diodoro said Market Analysis came out of the race with a leg injury, adding the hope is get a start in the gelding before Oaklawn’s meeting ends May 6. … Caddo River, runner-up in the $400,000 Oaklawn Mile (G3) April 1, is under consideration for the $175,000 Knicks Go Overnight Stakes for older horses at 1 mile May 6 at Churchill Downs, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Tuesday morning.  

@jonathanstettin wish i had words to express after reading this. Thank you

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