If anyone can recognize a good story, it’s Wayne Lukas, the 86-year-old Hall of Fame horse trainer.
All week at Pimlico Race Course, Lukas has sat for hours in his usual folding chair at the end of the stakes barn answering the same questions as wave after wave of reporters comes to pay homage to someone who is always a good quote.
Most of the questions this year are about Secret Oath, the only filly in the nine-horse Preakness Stakes on Saturday. It’s not as crazy as it might sound to run a filly against colts. Six times a filly has won the Preakness. Lukas has won the Preakness six times, but only with males. He did win the Kentucky Derby with a filly, Winning Colors in 1988.
When the owner of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike decided to bypass the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness needed an angle. And Lukas had one by bringing the Kentucky Oaks winner to Baltimore.
“If you want to be perfectly honest, this race right here was a little bit vanilla until she dropped into it,” Lukas said. “That stirs them up. Now half of America is on our side, we’ve got all the women. If we can get some of the guys to come over, we could be the favorite.”
Secret Oath has a shot. She is the third favorite at 9-2 on the morning line behind Epicenter (6-5) and Early Voting (7-2).
“I factored in that the Derby horses had a much tougher race than she did [in winning the Oaks],” Lukas said. “She had a textbook race, and some of them had a pretty tough race. All of that figures in.”
It wasn’t but two years ago when Swiss Skydiver, also a filly, won an October Preakness during the pandemic year, beating Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.
Kenny McPeek led Swiss Skydiver on that 2000 campaign that took her to 10 different tracks. McPeek points to the fact that Secret Oath will be carrying five less pounds of jockey weight than everyone else. She will carry 121 pounds, while all the males will have 126.
“She’ll be formidable,” said McPeek, who will saddle Creative Minister (10-1) in the Preakness. “And she’ll get a little bit of a weight break. But I don’t think she’s a filly you would be overly intimidated by. She’s certainly very good and it’ll be exciting to watch her run. I think the added distance for Secret Oath is going to help her cause. I think Wayne is looking at that.”
Her win in the Kentucky Oaks was over 1 1/8 miles, while the Preakness is 1 3/16th of a mile.
Lukas was certainly prescient about the Preakness needing something.
“I love having a filly in the Preakness,” said Aidan Butler, chief operating officer for 1st/Racing, which puts on the Preakness. “As disappointing as it was to lose the Derby winner, picking up the Oaks winner is a really cool thing and I’m hoping she gives the boys a good run for their money. I do think any time a good girl can beat up a good boy in a race, it’s something we can all lean into.”
This will not be Secret Oath’s first race against males. She finished third in the Arkansas Derby, despite having a very difficult trip. After that race, Lukas switched jockeys from Luis Contreras to Luis Saez.
After the Oaks win, Lukas went through his usual process to see whether Secret Oath was up to a race just two weeks later.
“First of all, we want to see how the recovery process is, make sure the electrolyte buildup and the energy level are in order,” Lukas said. “Then we try and handicap who might be in the field, what their ability is … and we list them. And we say, ‘Can we beat this horse?’ Yes. ‘Can we beat that horse?’ Yes. ‘This one maybe not.’
“Then we consider the risk versus the reward. How big is the purse and the race’s place in history. If she wins this race, she’ll go head and shoulders over everyone in her division. If all those factors come up positive or yes, we think it’s worth it.”
Secret Oath, who has won five of her eight lifetime races, will be the 46th Preakness starter for Lukas. He understands that he could have entered the horse in Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and been the prohibitive favorite. But there are 13 fillies in that race and the purse is only one-sixth as large.
“Any time you do it [run a filly against the boys], you’re stepping out of the box,” Lukas said. “This game is so tradition bound it doesn’t happen very often. I did it a lot with the quarter horses and with great success.”
It was after her win in the Kentucky Oaks that Lukas discovered, through the 287 texts he received, that this horse might be bigger than just the racing world and could be an antidote for a sport that spends a lot of time defending itself.
“She’s got a tremendous fan base for some reason,” Lukas said. “I think it’s because racing is searching for something positive after a very negative year. We haven’t had anything but negativity for about 12 months. I think the public is looking for something positive and to feel good about so they pick up on her a little bit.”
There is little doubt there will be no shortage of girls-versus-the-boys mentions during the national television coverage of the race. Proving, once again, Lukas knows a good storyline when he sees one.