LITTLE ROCK — Left to right, there are a half-dozen usual suspects and two invited outsiders in a winner’s circle picture snapped after a stakes race at Oaklawn Park early in 2012.
On the square are winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winning jockey Terry Thompson, an Oaklawn racing club member deputized for the trophy presentation and her three daughters. Also in the shot are two adorable little boys — decked out in black cowboy hats, jeans, and decorative boots — spur-of-the-moment guests of Lukas.
The 77-year-old Lukas, winner of 13 Triple Crown races, does that often, plucks a child or two from the crowd to walk across the track and join the winner’s circle celebration. The track photographer has standing orders to charge Lukas’ account $20 for the picture and to be sure the print is available 15-20 minutes later so the kids can leave with their glossy souvenir. The kindness is Lukas’ way of promoting the thoroughbred racing game where he has been winning major races for more than 30 years.
As a so-so horseplayer, his concern for the future of racing is appreciated. As a grandfather, his generosity is personal.
On a weekday during elementary school spring break a couple of years ago, an amateur tour guide with three precious girls in tow wandered the Oaklawn backstretch. Just looking, we moved from barn to barn and eventually trudged up a hill to the small trainer’s stand near the starting point for six-furlong races. Hanging out, we watched and heard dozens of horses come by and saw a few learning how to behave in the starting gate.
The track closed down at 8:30 a.m. so the team of tractors could renovate the surface and the entourage didn’t want to wait 30 minutes for the training to resume. Neatly landscaped as always, the Royal Glint barn, the one where Lukas’ 30 or so horses were stabled, was a magnet.
Lukas was there, mostly overseeing. I mentioned that we had talked years ago and he was kind to act as if he remembered. The girls hung back and Lukas noticed. He wanted to know if they would like to climb on his pony, the one he sits on tall in the saddle when his horses are on the track.
Each of the three got a turn aboard, a round-trip of 60-80 yards, and their smiles were priceless.
A former basketball coach, Lukas was one of the first trainers to understand the value of the media. Working the Kentucky Derby for AP, I knew where Lukas was holding court on the Churchill Downs backstretch because of the large notebook-carrying crowd, cameras, and boom mikes.
He is articulate and available — a natural target for folks who rarely cover the sport — and he will not embarrass a member of the media for a question that turf writers would consider inane.
For instance, in 1985, moments after the Lukas-trained Tank’s Prospect won the Arkansas Derby by an impressive margin, a Hot Springs radio reporter who had never been to the races wormed his way through a group of reporters and shoved his microphone into the trainer’s face to ask what was next for the colt.
Under their breath, some pressbox regulars said something to the effect: “The Kentucky Derby is two weeks away. Duh.”
Lukas, paraphrasing here, responded: “Well, this morning, I got two envelopes ready to mail his foal papers out in. One was addressed to go back to California. One was addressed to go to Kentucky. I think after this race, we’ll be using the envelope addressed to go to Kentucky.”
Point made, gently.
Lukas started his record 45th horse in the Kentucky Derby last year and he is on the Derby trail again with Smarty Jones winner Will Take Charge at Oaklawn and Lecomte winner Oxbow in New Orleans. Good for him. Good for the game.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.