Former Lukas assistant thrilled by Preakness win
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In dusty cowboy boots and spurs, George Weaver stood outside his barn at the Oklahoma training track this morning and recounted how he watched Saturday’s Preakness.
The tools and multi-tasking requirements of the modern trainer are such: he had his iPad hooked up to his BMW console while stuck in traffic.
He is tempted to text congratulations to his former mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, but “I’ve tried to shoot him a text before. I’m not sure if he gets it,” Weaver said with a laugh. “I’ll probably give him a call in a couple of days once the dust settles.”
“But anyway, we’re delighted for him.”
“We” could be any number of former Lukas assistants and workers, including Weaver, who was foreman and later assistant for the Hall of Famer in the 1990s during a time when Lukas was at the peak of his success and established the trend of big-barn operations with multiple divisions around the country.
Oxbow gave Lukas his sixth career Preakness at Pimlico and pushed him past Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for most-ever wins in Triple Crown races, with 14.
Since Commendable won the 2000 Belmont Stakes, though, Lukas has been more of a participant than a serious contender in these races, an always engaging font of history and insight for the media, but not necessarily one to fear by the other horsemen.
That all changed on Saturday, when fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens rode Oxbow, one of three Lukas horses in the Preakness, to a convincing victory.
“All of us, Todd [Pletcher] and me and Mark [Hennig] and Dallas [Stewart] and all the guys who worked for him, and my wife Cindy, as well, we’re always happy to see him win it. And it’s been awhile since he has.” Weaver said.
“Wayne is one of the greatest there ever has been and ever will be, and he didn’t forget how to do it. It’s just a matter of people giving him a chance to do it.”
Weaver, a Louisville, Ky., native, started working for Lukas in 1991.
He remembers early mornings that would march deep into the evening, because one misstep could rattle the whole formation.
The product was a meticulously well-groomed and prepared operation geared toward winning the classics.
“Wayne’s barn, the best way for me to describe it was larger than life,” Weaver said. “When I first went to work for him, for one, the barn looked like the Taj Mahal. Everything was done out to the tee, there were flowers, and everything was nice. It was such a great place to work and a great environment. Very high energy. They had great horses there. It was fun being there.”
But not too fun.
Lukas is a notoriously early riser, and that hasn’t changed now that he’s 77.
“If you had a little lazy in you or had a little trouble getting out of bed, working for Wayne Lukas was not good. You might as well not even try.”
“It’s so strange, because people would go to work for somebody like that and think, man, he’s a pain in the ass, he’s too tough. Because he wouldn’t let anything go. I mean, just everything that wasn’t perfect, he said something about it, and he kept pushing you to be perfect. You knew if you were able to work for him and able to satisfy him, you knew that you did a good job, because he was very tough. He was very hard to work for. He was very conscientious to detail. He wanted things done boom, boom, boom, boom, and there wasn’t any leeway.”
The Preakness has been especially kind to Lukas, even as one of his Preakness runners — Tabasco Cat — hasn’t been kind to him.
Weaver remembers the first time Tabasco Cat won, because he still has the win picture from the maiden race at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 28, 1993, Tabasco Cat’s third career start.
The only people in it are Weaver, Lukas’ son Jeff, who was his top assistant, and jockey Richard Migliore in the saddle.
Tabasco Cat would win the Preakness and Belmont the following year, starting an unprecedented string of six straight wins in the Triple Crown series.
By then, though, Jeff Lukas suffered from permanent brain damage as the result of being run over by Tabasco Cat, who got loose in the stable area at Santa Anita.
“I was with Todd Pletcher, I think we were in Florida at the time, and we got knews of what had happened,” Weaver said. “And, obviously, Jeff was a great horseman. He was a big part of Wayne’s success, as well.”
“And it really changed the landscape of the whole stable. It opened a pathway for Todd. He had already gained a lot of recognition and gained a lot in Wayne Lukas’ barn in moving forward. When that happened to Jeff, Todd became who Wayne needed to lean on to shore up the east coast and New York division.”
Jeff Lukas never got a chance to start his own stable, but the other assistants, who also included Kiaran McLaughlin and Mike Maker, did branch out from Wayne Lukas and find their own way.
On Saturday, Weaver was drawn back to where he started and the glorious days when Lukas dominated the Triple Crown series.
“It’s no surprise that he could get it done again,” he said. “Once I saw the way that that horse was moving and the way Gary got him to the lead, I thought, man, they’re not going to catch this horse, because he was going comfortable. But, yeah, when they were turning for home, I was like, ‘C’mon, Wayne, get it done.’”