Preakness week began with a yawn.
Tuesday, there were a few TV guys plugging in cords and a few more people in security uniforms, guarding the Stakes Barns, which were all but empty.
Yes, they will hold the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown here Saturday, and the world will be watching with interest to see if, yet again, we will have a candidate in American Pharoah for that prestigious honor June 6 at the Belmont.
But if horse racing has a hype machine, it was turned off. Had this been Mayweather-Pacquiao, there would have been 200 millennials with microphones, waiting in line for the makeup lady.
Wednesday dawned with cool breezes, overcast skies and the same serenity at the beloved and decrepit Pimlico. Suffice to say, regarding the neighborhood surrounding the track, the sport of kings doesn’t have any living nearby.
But all this disregards the continuing presence of racing’s rainmaker. After all, who needs a hype machine when you’ve got Wayne Lukas?
Lukas is to thoroughbred racing what Richard Petty is to NASCAR, Arnold Palmer to golf, Sandy Koufax to baseball. Only Lukas is still pitching in the big leagues.
And there he was, bright and early, sitting outside his end barn, where he has taken temporary residence at Pimlico for more years than anybody can remember. He awaited the vultures, those under-showered, badly dressed types who carry tape recorders, microphones or notepads. When he calls them vultures, it is a term of endearment. Most of the time.
This vulture got one-on-one time.
Lukas will turn 80 Sept. 2. He could be the great retired one, the loved and learned voice of the past. As one of America’s most successful and revered horse trainers, who has won four Kentucky Derbies, six Preakness Stakes, four Belmonts and a Joe DiMaggio-like 20 Breeders’ Cup races, he has more than sufficient laurels to rest on.
Resting is not his style.
“My energy is still good,” he said. “I still ride four, five hours a day. I probably have missed going to the barns two or three times in the last 10 years. I miss it. If I don’t go, I feel guilty.”
He said his wife tells him about trips their friends are taking.
“I tell her she can turn on the Discovery Channel,” he said.
He faces this world of technological mazes as a total curmudgeon about it. He shows his flip phone — yes, they still have those — with pride. No tweeting. No texting.
“You only want the things if your car breaks down,” he said.
Lukas is amused by social media.
“I tell my owners, we don’t need to train our horses,” he said. “Everybody in America is doing that for us. I can just get a 900 line and find out what I should do. Or I can tune into ESPN and find out that 73% of the people want me to enter a race.”
But there was more going on with Lukas this quiet Wednesday morning than just being a curmudgeon. He was here with a handful of horses scheduled to run on Preakness day. But none in the Preakness.
Then, it came to pass that his Mr. Z, who ran 13th in the Derby and wasn’t scheduled to run here, was sticking his head out of a nearby stall.
It gets complicated.
Mr. Z is named after Ahmed Zayat, his owner. Zayat also owns American Pharoah. The smart thing was obvious. No Preakness for Mr. Z. No need to compete against himself with a Triple Crown in play. Zayat had been adamant about that with the media.
But there was more going on. Lukas said he had been told by Zayat to add Mr. Z to the van for the trip here from Louisville, “just in case.” He interpreted that to mean “just in case” something happened to American Pharoah en route. Then Zayat would still have an entry.
The Derby champion arrived in a van at midafternoon and was fine. By then, Mr. Z was entered in the Preakness. But, probably, with new ownership.
Lukas admitted that he spent extended time on the phone — ah, flip phone — on his trip here. He said he was just a facilitator of a conversation about a possible sale. One half of that conversation was Zayat, or his representatives. The other half was Brad Kelley of Calumet Farms, for whom Lukas does the bulk of his training.
By noon Wednesday, the deal was close enough to enter the horse and get a post position. But it wasn’t done. Paper was moving back and forth via fax machines.
“The only things I like about technology,” Lukas said.
By post-position draw time later Wednesday, Lukas said the deal was done. Think seven figures, for a deal this late in the game.
The transaction brought reaction from others on two levels: 1. That Lukas could pull this off and get into the race; 2. Concern that Mr. Z’s history of lugging out could affect the Preakness.
That Lukas would do the unconventional is not an upset.
He was once harshly criticized for starting filly Serena’s Song in the 1995 Kentucky Derby. She tired badly and finished 16th. It got hotter when he started her two weeks later in the Black Eyed Susan, the filly equivalent of the Preakness. She won by a large margin.
In 2013, his Will Take Charge never hit the board in the Triple Crown races and still did enough, including a defeat by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, to become the year’s champion 3-year-old.
Last year, his Take Charge Brandi won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at 60-1.
Whatever happens with Mr. Z, his story, as orchestrated by the one and only Mr. L, jumped-started a Preakness scene that needed a jolt.