BALTIMORE — There’s confidence, and then there’s drive-to-Mexico-to-place-a-Kentucky-Derby-bet-in-March confidence.
That’s what some of trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ barn help did in 1988, based on their belief that his filly Winning Colors was good enough to beat males, an unusual move in North American Thoroughbred racing, but not without plenty of precedents.
Lukas himself had raced Lady’s Secret in open company for three straight starts two years prior, beginning with a victory in the Whitney at Saratoga Race Course during her 4-year-old season.
Still, it brings an extra level of fascination for sports fans when a female faces males in a high-profile race, which we’ll see again on Saturday when Lukas sends Secret Oath into the 147th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course as the likely fan favorite, if not in the betting.
You need a superb filly to do it, of course, and Lukas has one, again.
It also takes a firm belief that your filly can handle potential roughhouse tactics from the males, and Lukas is brimming with confidence on that front based on Secret Oath’s third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby that he believes would’ve been a win with different riding tactics. (He replaced Luis Contreras with Luis Saez for Secret Oath’s commanding victory in the Kentucky Oaks last time out.)
But back to Winning Colors, who not only won the 1988 Kentucky Derby, but ran in all three Triple Crown races, finishing third in the Preakness and sixth in the Belmont Stakes before returning to races restricted to fillies.
“Believe it or not, the first Derby future book came out, and my grooms pooled their money and went down to Caliente [Hipodromo] and bet her at 200-1 in March,” the 86-year-old Lukas said on Friday morning. “It was an astronomical payoff. They had to go down there and wait two days because Caliente didn’t have the money. It was that much.
“Then they were concerned about getting back through the border check with a quarter-million dollars, wondering if they’re drug dealers or who the hell they are. So it really got to be a dramatic thing.”
Speaking of drama, there have been six fillies to win the Preakness, most recently Swiss Skydiver in 2020, when the race was run in the fall because of the pandemic, but there was an over-eight-decade gap between Nellie Morse’s win in 1924 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
Sometimes you just have the best horse, regardless of gender, and Lukas said he encouraged his colleague and fellow Hall of Famer, Steve Asmussen, to run Rachel in the Preakness, after she had demolished the competition multiple times, including the Kentucky Oaks.
Asmussen, who has the morning-line favorite in this year’s Preakness, Kentucky Derby runner-up Epicenter, still marvels at the season Rachel put together as a 3-year-old in 2009, which included three races against males, the Preakness, a victory in the Haskell and her stunning win over older males in the Woodward at Saratoga Race Course that remains one of the most incredible sporting events I’ve seen live.
Asmussen had to scramble to prepare for that Preakness, because Rachel had been in his barn less than two weeks following a private sale.
“It was a whirlwind 12 days, to say the least,” he said. “What a special horse to accept all of it. The quick turnaround, against a 13-horse field. People forget that the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter [Big Drama] was in that race, and she put him away, and holds off the Derby winner [Mine That Bird]. Those things and the Preakness need to be respected.
“The overwhelming feeling I had that just, like, hit me, was when we walked out of this stakes barn with her headed over there, how everybody was on her side. I’ve been fortunate to be in horse racing at a high level, and we had won the Preakness two years previously with an all-time great in Curlin, but I have never run a horse like Rachel Alexandra that everybody in attendance was pulling for.
“The whole Rachel Alexandra experience was hard to describe, because of the people’s adoration toward her. And understandably and rightfully so.”
That adoration easily translated to Saratoga on Woodward Day.
What the fans probably weren’t aware of was how difficult it had been for Asmussen to get the proper training in, since it had rained what seemed, to him, like a non-stop basis in the week leading up to the race.
“Trying to get any sort of training that you wanted going into the Woodward became … shoot, you quit sleeping because there were raindrops on the roof,” Asmussen said. “It just wouldn’t quit, to get in what you felt she needed to give her a chance. And she overcomes it.
“The race and the experience, and you get there … OK, great. But how do you get there? What did you overcome to get there? And in those two races, nothing was easy for her. Nothing. She just rose above it.
“The Woodward is still the most emotional race I’ve ever been involved with. You talk about acid reflux.”
By the time Winning Colors won the Derby, Lukas had not only sent Lady’s Secret against males, but also Terlingua, who won the 1978 Hollywood Juvenile Championship Stakes at 2 and was fifth in the Santa Anita Derby the following year.
Lukas was on the other side of the filly/colt coin in 1980, when he won the first of his six Preaknesses, with Codex, a result that was widely criticized for the stewards’ decision not to disqualify Codex and jockey Angel Cordero for fouling Genuine Risk, who had won the Kentucky Derby two weeks prior, the second filly in history to do so.
The fact that it looked like a colt beating up a filly added to the anger.
“He [Cordero] mugged me and he got away with it,” jockey Jacinto Vasquez told the Baltimore Sun for a retrospective article in 2019. “He pushed my horse out into the parking lot. He undressed me, barbecued me and took me to the clubhouse.
“The stewards? Those three blind mice should have been put in jail for the decision they made.”
Lukas said that when Winning Colors got into her 3-year-old season, their view of her was “‘Geez, too bad she’s not a colt,’ because she was physically bigger than anything they had. We did nominate her in February, thinking Derby if everything fell into place.”
The Winning Colors camp, including owner Eugene Klein, used the Santa Anita Derby as a gauge for a shot at the Kentucky Derby, and she won by seven lengths.
“There was some coverage of, ‘This cowboy’s stepping out of the box in the Santa Anita Derby,’” Lukas said. “But there were a lot of questions about ‘He’s a lock in the Oaks, why step outside the box?’ You had to know Gene Klein, who owned the San Diego Chargers. He was aggressive and flamboyant and brassy …‘Screw ‘em, we’ll take ‘em on.’ He had that football mentality.”
Lukas said many modern-day trainers are reluctant to send fillies against males because they’re too worried about their winning percentage and want more time between starts.
“Their mindset is different than what it would be for me or Woody Stephens or Charlie Whittingham or Laz Barrera. Talking with him, Laz said, ‘Hell, I think you’ll win the Derby, go for it. No big deal.’ And I never checked my percentage for 30 years. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”
The plan — “chiseled in stone” — for Secret Oath after the Preakness is to give her a break from racing for eight weeks, then crank it up for the biggest races in her division.
That means Saratoga fans should expect to see the top 3-year-old filly in the country to show up for the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 23 and the Alabama on Aug. 20.
In the meantime, Secret Oath will feel the love from Preakness Day, as she tackles eight colts.
“You run a filly, you don’t want that 20-horse field in the Derby unless you have tactical speed,” Lukas said. “Winning Colors went wire-to-wire. I told Gene Klein, ‘We’re only going to run against two or three of ‘em. Everybody else will be in back of us.’
“The layperson really jumps on it [filly vs. males]. You would not believe the fan base that this filly’s developed already. Of course, you’re going to get half the population overnight. The women are already in the tank, and we only have to get a few of the men.”
The time I spent picking the Preakness winner was measured in nanoseconds, since I loved Epicenter in the Derby and will come right back with him at Pimlico.
Underneath, let’s go with Secret Oath, Simplification and Creative Minister to finish the superfecta.