Lukas to saddle record 45th Derby starter
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas will extend his own record for Kentucky Derby starters on Saturday when he saddles Optimizer.
The colt with the modest 1 for 9 record will be the 45th Lukas runner in the Derby. His closest pursuer is former assistant Todd Pletcher with 26. Pletcher sends out the duo of Gemologist and El Padrino in the 1 1/4 mile race.
With four Derby wins, Lukas trails only Ben Jones who won six times from 1939-52. Dick Thompson also trained four winners.
By his own admission, Lukas is not playing a strong hand this time.
Optimizer won his debut on the turf last August at Saratoga and has suffered several double-digit defeats since then. His best recent effort was a rallying second in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in March. Optimizer was beaten 20 lengths last time out in the Arkansas Derby.
He didn't secure a Derby spot until Tuesday morning when Mark Valeski was withdrawn. Optimizer had been on the bubble, sitting 21st on the graded-stakes earnings list with the top 20 qualifying. The defection opened the door for Optimizer and Lukas.
"I've got to get his `A' game, I've got to get his best race,'' Lukas said. "As you know over the years there have been some surprises. I don't know if he'll be a surprise or not. I don't have any grandiose ideas we're going to go over there and win. He's got to step way up.''
While his chances for a Derby victory are slim, Lukas takes pride in seeing three of his former assistants with horses in the race.
In addition to Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin will send out Alpha while Mike Maker runs Hansen.
"From Lukas U, we've got three guys who all graduated with honors,'' Lukas said. "I'd like to see all three of them do good.''
LATE ARRIVAL: Hansen, the last Derby runner to arrive at Churchill Downs, had the shortest distance to travel.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner here last November had been prepping about five miles away at the Trackside Training Center. He arrived Wednesday morning, beating the noon deadline for Derby horses to be on the grounds.
Both the horse and trainer appeared agitated.
The gray, almost white colt, bolted off the van and took a while to settle in his stall while trying to nip passers-by.
Trainer Mike Maker would have preferred to remain away from the Derby bustle.
"No,'' was Maker's response when asked if he was happy to be at the track.
"Yes I do'' he answered when asked whether he preferred the solitude of the Trackside center.
Hansen is 1 for 3 this season, running second in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, winning the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and finishing second to Dullahan in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
RIDER UP: Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Wednesday that Rajiv Maragh will ride Alpha in the Derby.
Ramon Dominguez had been aboard for the colt's last three races, including a neck loss to undefeated Gemologist in the Wood Memorial.
With Dominguez committed to Hansen for the Derby, Maragh got the mount.
"We just wanted to make sure there weren't any jockeys that came open,'' McLaughlin said, explaining the delay in naming a jockey.
This will be Alpha's second appearance at Churchill Downs. He acted up in the starting gate before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, delaying the start of the race and wound up 11th.
"He's been great in the gate ever since,'' McLaughlin said. "We've schooled him often, and he hasn't done anything wrong in the gate in the morning or the afternoon.''
Alpha regrouped with a pair of wins at Aqueduct leading to the Wood.
HEATING UP: It could be steamy in Louisville with a heat wave expected to grip the area through Derby Day.
Saturday's race day forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-80s with a 40 percent chance of showers or a thunderstorm.
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