A formula for success that transcends any sport
D Wayne Lukas' feats as a trainer put him on same playing field as some true greats, writes Ian McClean
Racing has a bit of a complex. Its renowned insularity makes it blind to comparison with other disciplines. Horse racing can instantly recognise its own champions -- McCoy, O'Brien etc -- but has no benchmark of their relative merits versus other sports.
This preoccupies the racing tribe at least once a year when Sports Personality of the Year rolls around in England, and the annual petition for AP McCoy is unfurled, and the injustice bemoaned as he fails to make even the BBC's shortlist (of 10 last year!)
If the horse racing champions' merit is hard to gauge even in the context of other sports, then what chance have we of measuring its elite against other spheres like the humanities, science or industry? How would Michael Stoute stack up against say Alex Ferguson or Alan Sugar or even Winston Churchill?
Those excellent scholars at Harvard Business Review set about equating what it takes to become a champion in a multitude of varying disciplines and to determine if it's possible to derive a blueprint for success that transcended the discipline.
For horse racing, it went right to the top for its subject and chose D Wayne Lukas -- the pinnacle of thoroughbred achievement in the US. No one has trained more Breeders' Cup winners; nor more Triple Crown winners; nor won more trainers' championships; nor amassed more prize money (quarter of a billion dollars at last count) in the history of American racing. So what makes Lukas great, and what's in his recipe?
Not surprisingly, it all starts with the horse. "What makes it so interesting is that they're all different," says Lukas. "What works for one doesn't work for another. The biggest thing when you're training racehorses is to be very observant. You must pick up on the little things."
Trial and error is stock-in-trade to ultimate success for Lukas. "You have to keep trying different things. That's one thing that marks our programme: we never give up on a horse." He cites the example of 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic which he describes as "pretty much a failure early on in his career".
He elaborates: "It got to the point that I even ran him in a claiming race -- twice. And nobody took him -- that's how poor his form was. But I kept trying different things. I drilled him. I treated him with tough love and suddenly I had a fine-tuned athlete that went on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and almost won the Belmont."
However, there is a fine balance in the tough-love policy and Wayne Lukas' stable mantra is to 'never take the try out of the horse'. "A horse's mental state is, to me, three-to-one more important than his physical state." His sign-off to the question, 'Is there any such thing as an untrainable horse?' is telling. "I haven't run into one yet, but I think some of my colleagues have."
The man whose lifetime earnings are more than double any other trainer in history puts the origin of his success down to an early manoeuvre. "We changed the game," Lukas explains. "When I first started, everyone who owned a stable stayed pretty much in one location. We realised that not all players can play in the big leagues. Not every horse is going to be able to run at Santa Anita, Belmont, Saratoga -- the top end. If he can't run at Santa Anita and Saratoga, we'll drop him into Monmouth Park. If not Monmouth Park, we'll drop him down to Delaware. If he can't compete at Delaware, we'll take him to Omaha. And you know what happened? All kinds of records began to fall. We started dominating across the country. That's where we got the catchphrase, 'D Wayne off the plane'.
"This is a business so rich in tradition you can't budge people. And I came along, upbeat, brassy, and confident and I said, 'We're going to do it differently'. I even went so far as to put white bridles on horses. I was running fillies against colts. The old traditionalists said you should never do that. We not only did it, we made a filly Horse of the Year. We won the Kentucky Derby with one, which had the old hardboots choking on their mint juleps!"
D Wayne Lukas takes little for granted -- especially with his people. When asked how many worked for him he replied, "87 this morning".
He is famously pedantic around both discipline and standards. "I had a kid one time -- in fact he's now a successful trainer in his own right -- and he was in Monmouth Park with a division of mine. I was watching on TV and he won two big stakes, back to back. I called him on the phone: I was quite proud of him. But when he answered, he said, 'Boss, we done good'. And I said, 'You hillbilly SOB, I trust you with the best clientele in America -- educated, highly successful people -- and you answer the phone and tell me 'we done good'? He never forgot it. After that he'd say, 'We did well coach'."
As well as his horses, Lukas is adaptable when it comes to people. "You have to know when to back off and when to bear down. When to kick ass and when to pat them on the back. The only thing I cannot tolerate is lack of effort. And I don't tolerate it that well in a horse either. When it gets to that point, I have to say: 'This horse is wasting my time. Let's run him for a claiming tag'. Or, 'This kid is wasting my time, I'm going to send him over to Baffert's barn'."
For Wayne Lukas we could easily substitute Aidan O'Brien. Or Jim Bolger. Ferguson? Sugar? None of whom have Harvard degrees to my knowledge. We could make a strong case for Michael O'Leary too. Perhaps this explains his fascination with the sport. I'd be interested to know, however, whose barn he uses for his timewasters?