Lukas Ready to Roll at Oaklawn

March 29, 2024

Just Steel will have Keith Asmussen aboard for this trip in the Arkansas Derby. (Jenny Doyle/Past The Wire)

By Robert Yates

Brad Cox turns 44 Saturday, the same day he can become the first trainer in Oaklawn history to sweep its two biggest races for 3-year-olds in consecutive years.

If legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas accomplishes that Saturday, it would be twice as nice.

Lukas, 88, is scheduled to start Just Steel in the $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby and Lemon Muffin in the $750,000 G2-Fantasy Stakes for fillies. The nine-furlong Arkansas Derby and 8 ½-furlong Fantasy are Oaklawn’s final qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively. Lukas also has another Kentucky Derby candidate in Oaklawn allowance winner Seize the Grey, who is pointing for the $1 million G1-Blue Grass Stakes April 6 at Keeneland.

Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times and the Kentucky Oaks a record-tying five times, the last coming in 2022 with multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Secret Oath.

“I think we have a legitimate chance to get two Derby horses and an Oaks filly, which is what I’m getting paid to do,” Lukas said Wednesday morning. “The age thing should be an asset, really, because of having the experience of being in that many derbies and that many Oaks and we’ve won five Oaks. Well, I’ll take a guy that’s won five Oaks over one that’s never been in one – on the experience factor. Again, the horse is the most important ingredient. 

“The thing that’s more significant, I think, than the age is the fact that clientele is still backing (me). Actually, they really stepped-up last year. Wait to you see the 2-year-old lineup. We have really got a strong 2-year-old lineup. So, if we don’t get there this year, I think we’ve got a hell of a shot next year.”

Lemon Muffin rolls to the win and Oaks points in the Honeybee. (Coady Photography)
Lemon Muffin taking the Honeybee trail to the Oaks. (Coady Photography)

Lemon Muffin, after four consecutive runner-up finishes, burst on the Kentucky Oaks scene when she broke her maiden in her the last start, the $400,000 G3-Honeybee Stakes Feb. 24 at Oaklawn. Lemon Muffin collected 50 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points for winning the Honeybee, which was her first career start around two turns.

Lemon Muffin (50 points) ranks fifth on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard compiled by Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Oaks is limited to 14 starters. Lemon Muffin is 9-2 on the morning line for the Fantasy after winning the Honeybee at 28-1.

“I think you’re going to see an improved filly, with that one (Honeybee) under her belt,” Lukas said. “She’s done everything right.”

The Fantasy will award 200 points to its top five finishers (100-50-25-15-10, respectively) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Oaks. The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass use the same sliding scale for Kentucky Derby qualifying. 

Lukas’ two Kentucky Derby prospects are in more precarious positions. Seize the Grey (27 points) ranks 15th, according to Churchill Downs, with Just Steel (15) No. 29. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters.

Just Steel ran second in Oaklawn’s first two Kentucky Derby points races, $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 and $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Feb. 3, before finishing a disappointing seventh in the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24. The Rebel was Oaklawn’s third Kentucky Derby points race. Just Steel broke from post 11 in the Rebel and was caught five-wide on both turns.

Barring a scratch from the Arkansas Derby, Just Steel will be the only horse to go through Oaklawn’s four-race Kentucky Derby points series in 2024.

“Boy, he’s a big, grand, long-striding horse,” Lukas said. “To see him in the morning, you’d say: ‘Don’t worry about it. He’ll take care of himself.’ But I’ve got to get a better trip and he draws badly.”

Hall of Famer Bob Baffert became the first trainer to win the Arkansas Derby and Fantasy in the same year in 2012, striking with Bodemeister and Mamma Kimbo, respectively.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen swept both races in 2016 (Creator and Terra Promessa) and again in 2021 (Super Stock and Pauline’s Pearl). Cox won last year’s Arkansas Derby with Angel of Empire and Fantasy with Wet Paint.

Asmussen has three horses entered in this year’s Arkansas Derby (Dimatic, Informed Patriot and Imperial Gun) and one in the Fantasy (Recharge). Cox will start Timberlake in the Arkansas Derby and West Omaha in the Fantasy.

Muth scoring the American Pharoah at Santa Anita. (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)

Baffert doesn’t have a 2024 Fantasy entrant, but he has the 8-5 Arkansas Derby program favorite in Muth. Just Steel (15-1) is scheduled to break from post 8 in the projected 10-horse field. Just Steel is by Justify, Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown winner.

“I’m happy for Wayne,” Baffert said of his longtime friend. “I talk to him every once in a while. I’ll check in on him. I tell you what, he’s always thinking ahead, telling me about his 2-year-olds coming up, and this and that. That’s one thing about this business. It will keep you young, keep you dreaming. It’s fun to dream.”

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