At a time when most coaches have become too cautious and too patient, 86-year-old Wayne Lukas has emerged as a breath of fresh air.
Lukas announced last week that he would race his star filly Secret Oath (Arrogate) in the April 2 GI Arkansas Derby against the colts instead of the safer choice, the GIII Fantasy S. race the same day. It’s not just a bold choice, it’s a smart choice. With the men’s contingent heading to the Arkansas Derby uncharacteristically small, Secret Oath figures as the favorite in a race where the purse is $1.25 million and the winner earns 100 Derby points. She can absolutely win. The Fantasy costs $600,000.
And while Lukas says the horse, no matter how well he performs in the Arkansas Derby, is still up for the GI Kentucky Oaks, don’t believe him for a minute. If she wins the Arkansas Derby, she will enter the GI Kentucky Derby. Lukas is too daredevil not to take that risk. It’s straight out of his playbook.
A filly last raced in the Derby in 2010 when Devil May Care (Malibu Moon) finished 10th. In 2016, Churchill switched to a new system, awarding qualifying points in traditional race preparations rather than based on winnings in graduated-stakes races. This meant that a filly had to race in a prep against colts to have a chance of qualifying for the Derby. So far no one has even tried.
Enter Lucas. He didn’t become one of the greatest coaches of all time by being shy.
He won the Arkansas Derby in 1984 with filly Althea, who entered that race just seven days after winning the Fantasy. It was the last time a filly won the Arkansas Derby. She didn’t do well in the Kentucky Derby, she was 19th. But she was there. In 1988 he sent Winning Colors from the GI Santa Anita Oaks straight to the GI Santa Anita Derby, which she won. Four weeks later, she became only the third filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby. Lady’s Secret raced against men seven times and beat them in the 1986 GI Whitney H., a win that helped her win Horse of the Year. Serena’s Song won the 1995 GII Jim Beam before running 16th in the Derby, the fourth Lukas-trained filly to start the race. She went on to win the GI Haskell Invitational in 1995. In 1996, she only missed by a neckline when second in the Whitney.
Late developer Secret Oath didn’t hit its stride until it came to Oaklawn. She won an allowance there on December 31 by 8 1/4 lengths, then won the Martha Washington S. by 7 1/4. Then there was a start in the GIII Honeybee S. and she crushed them again, winning by 7 1/2 lengths.
Maybe she’s not as good as a Winning Colors or a Lady’s Secret, but she doesn’t have to be…especially when it comes to winning the Arkansas Derby. A lot of starters will come out of the GII Rebel, which was a mess. It was won by Un Ojo (Laoban) 75-1 and Baffert stable favorite Newgrange (Violence) was a lackluster sixth. The Rebel went in 1:45.69 for the mile and sixteenth. Six races earlier in the Honeybee, Secret Oath went almost a second faster, clocking 1:44.74.
In the last TD Thornton Derby Top 12, not a single confirmed Arkansas Derby starter made the list.
Among the colts watching the Derby, there is no one to stand out, no one to fear. The best horse may be Messier de Baffert (Empire Maker) and due to Baffert’s problems he may not be in the field. There is also the Echo Zulu (Gun Runner) factor. Last year’s Eclipse Award-winning champion juvenile fillies will make her 3-year-old debut on Saturday at the GII Fair Grounds Oaks fairgrounds. If she picks up where she left off, she might just be better than any of the Derby-watching colts.
Then there’s the “what’s best for the game” angle. For an extended period where scandals dominated the headlines, the sport could really use a feel-good story. Seeing a revered icon attempt to win the Kentucky Derby, 23 years after her last victory and doing so with a filly at 86, is something anyone can rally behind. This could be Lukas’ last chance, and he looks set to go. Good for him.
Speaking of old…
What would you say R-rated Superstar (Kodiak Kid) winning a $500,000 high-stakes race at the age of nine? The veteran accomplished the feat on Saturday in Oaklawn by winning the GIII Essex H. by 2 1/4 lengths.
Owner Danny Caldwell and trainer Federico Villafranco took a big chance last year when he claimed the horse for $50,000 when he was 8 years old. But he more than repaid them. He has won four times since and took home $300,000 in Essex for the richest win of his career. Rated R Superstar won his first graded stakes in 2016 when he won the GIII Carry Back S. in Oaklawn. He won six stakes races, including the 2019 Essex, which went unclassified that year. He will next compete in GII Oaklawn H. on April 23.
Arlington’s New Million
People love to hate Churchill Downs, but when they do something good they should be recognized for it. The announcement last week that Churchill will host a one-day reunion on August 13 and host the GI Arlington Million, GI Beverly DS and GII Secretariat S. was welcome. Still, it was met with a lot of negativity.
Chris Block, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents horse owners and trainers, told nbcchicago.com that Million’s decision “is another reminder that Churchill Downs has closed Arlington Park and abandoned horse racing. Illinois horses, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs across our state.”
Yes, it would be much better if Arlington Park was still open and hosting these races, but that wasn’t going to happen. The only alternative to the Million being performed in Churchill was that it would not be performed at all. It’s better. The sport cannot easily afford to lose such a historic race.
The Million, by the way, wasn’t always held in Arlington. With Arlington being rebuilt after the fire, he was executed at Woodbine in 1988.