Last Samurai, D. Wayne Lukas’ entrant in this year’s Whitney (Coady Photography)
NYRA Press Office
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— When discussing the accomplishments and accolades of Todd Pletcher, it’s impossible not to mention fellow Hall of Famer and former mentor D. Wayne Lukas. On Saturday, the two will square off in the Grade 1, $1 million Whitney when Pletcher sends out Charge It and Lukas saddles Last Samurai – both multiple graded stakes winners.
Both Lukas and Pletcher have been synonymous with Grade 1 level thoroughbred racing for decades. After Lukas established a North American racing empire in the 1980s into the 90s, Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant, built a strong foundation in his own right after going out on his own in 1995. Fast forward to 2023, Lukas and Pletcher have won a combined 12 Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer, 20 American Classics, 34 Breeders’ Cups and over 10,000 lifetime victories.
Lukas and Pletcher also are familiar with capturing the nine-furlong Whitney en route to Eclipse Award honors at year end. Lukas saddled Hall of Famer Lady’s Secret to a triumph in the 1986 Whitney against males before the daughter of Secretariat won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and was subsequently named Horse of the Year. Four years later, Lukas campaigned 1990 Whitney winner Criminal Type, who earned Horse of the Year as well as Champion Older Horse honors at the conclusion of the season.
Pletcher’s first two Whitney winners Left Bank  and Lawyer Ron  both were named Champion Older Horse at the end of their respective campaigns.
Lukas and Pletcher have gone head-to-head many times at Grade 1 level, but always with a strong mutual respect.
“He’s what I consider to be the greatest trainer in North American history, with or without the guys who work for him,” Pletcher said. “He was going to make whoever worked for him better. We were all very fortunate to be a part of the team.”
Pletcher isn’t the only Lukas alum to build their own racing foundation – former assistants Dallas Stewart, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, Mike Maker and
George Weaver also came up under Lukas’ tutelage.
“Todd’s done a tremendous job of putting together a nice set of horses and I think he deserves any accolades or superlatives that you can mention,” Lukas stated. “It’s fun to compete against some of those guys. Mark Hennig, him, Dallas [Stewart], Kiaran McLaughlin, all those guys. I’ve had to compete against them a lot of times.”
Lukas humbly stated that Pletcher, as well as his other former pupils, would have prospered even without his help.
“I’ve said it before: those guys, Todd included, that came up under me, they were going to be successful even if they had never met me,” Lukas said. “They were great people that had a lot of talent, and the right work ethic. They met me and we teamed up and did some really special things, but they were all going to be successful regardless. A lot of times when I’m reflective of my career and look back 30-40 years, I’m not so sure that they didn’t pick me up and carry me to some of these records, rather than me helping them. It was a two-way street. They covered a lot of bases and I had a great network, but I had to have some exceptional people around me to be able to pull that off.”
As for the Whitney, both Pletcher and Lukas will be focused on besting 1-2 morning line favorite and four-time Grade 1 winner Cody’s Wish, rather than on each other.
Charge It [post 2, John Velazquez, 5-1] enters from a frontrunning victory in the Grade 2 Suburban going 10 furlongs at Belmont Park, while Last Samurai [post 4, Flavien Prat, 15-1] looks to recapture his winning form from earlier this season when collecting Grade 3 Oaklawn Park conquests in the Razorback in February and the Essex in March.
“We’re both up against it in there. It’ll be a tough order to beat Cody’s Wish, but my horse is doing well and it’s exciting to give it a try,” Pletcher said.
Pletcher said attention to detail and commitment have been the biggest lessons he learned when coming up under Lukas.
“He still has remarkable work ethic and that’s the one thing I think he instilled in his protégés,” Pletcher said.
While being of the old school, Lukas expressed appreciation for all young and up-and-coming trainers.
“Thank God for the young ones. If there weren’t any young ones, there wouldn’t be any old ones,” Lukas said.