Thoroughbred Trainer D. Wayne Lukas
Wayne Lukas tells AQHA convention attendees to make a difference every day.
March 29, 2017
The American Quarter Horse Journal
If you want to be happy for a day, go fishing.
If you want to be happy for a week, get a puppy.
If you want to be happy for a month, get married.
If you want to be happy for year, win the lottery.
If you want to be happy forever, get an American Quarter Horse.
It is the greatest equine association in the world and you’re all members. And you should give yourself a hand. You’re a great bunch.
We drove up from Arkansas yesterday and got to see a lot of Texas. We were going to fly, but I prefer to drive and see a little bit of the countryside. I’ve learned that when you fly, when you get on an airplane and sit down next to a stranger, you have to be really careful you don’t say you’re in the racehorse business or the horse business in general. As soon as you do, they’ll say, “Did you ever win the Kentucky Derby or run in the Kentucky Derby?” That sets up about a two hour conversation, where you’re going to try to explain what you do with a horse. I’ve learned that as soon as you sit down and a guy sits down and he says, “What do you do for a living?” I say, “I sell insurance. How’s your insurance portfolio?” They get over against the window and put their headsets on.
Jim (Dr. Jim Heird, AQHA second vice president) introduced Laurie (Wayne’s wife) and she’s the Quarter Horse part of our family now. The best horseman in our family. She was a judge for 22 years and many of you know her. I said to her the other day, “Laurie, did you ever in your wildest, wildest dreams think you’d marry a guy who won the Kentucky Derby four times?” She looked at me and said, “Wayne, you’re not in my wildest dreams.”
I was thinking about this marriage deal. Here’s what you need to do: If you want to know where you stand with your wife and how much she loves you, here’s what you do. Get your dog and put him in the trunk of your car. Put your wife in the trunk of the car. Close the trunk and drive around for two hours. When you open the trunk, you’ll know who loves you the most.
I admire what you guys do. I look out here and see horseman that I’ve known for years. It would be great if I could spend a couple of days. I’d like to sit down and share the ideas and stuff that you do. I admire the stuff you do with a horse. I watch it.
My heart has always been with the American Quarter Horse. I got into the Thoroughbred business because of financial reasons. You can all relate to that. But I love Quarter Horses and I admire what you do.
I’d like to share some of my thoughts and what’s happened to me as I’ve been training for over 60 years. I think it’s important not only in a convention setting but generally when you run into a neighbor or go to a horse show or going to a cutting or roping or whatever, that you exchange ideas. I think that is where the growth comes in the industry.
Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay coach, said, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.”
I think that you’ve got to constantly be looking for excellence. Most people know where they want to go in life but they get up every day and don’t know how to close the gap. They know where they’re at today but they don’t know where they’re going to end up or how to get where they’d like to be.
Most people go through life or in the horse business like a man who jumped off a 10-story building. As he passes the fifth floor, he says, “So good so far.”
Really most people are dreamers. They dream about winning the big one, having the great cutting horse or whatever your discipline is, they dream about it and aren’t ready to make the sacrifice to make that happen or that you have to make in order to get where you want to go.
Bob Knight, the great Indiana coach, told me, “Everybody wants to win. Not everybody has the will to prepare to win. Most people can’t sustain that day-in-day-out will to win.”
You have to wake up every day … I wake up every day, shave, 3:30 a.m. … I’m 82 … wake up and say, “Today I’m going to make a difference. I’m going to make a difference in the horses that I’ve got. I’m going to make a difference in my life and everybody I run into including those young assistants.”
In order to get started, I’d like to just touch a little on selecting a horse. Each of you use breeders, buy and sell, raise them or whatever you do, the horse is the key. The reason I want to touch on that is that in my career, I’ve never had the chance of delaying my career for any great breeders or anything. I had to go out and get it in the sale pen. The selection process of over 50-60 years.
I thought I’d rewind a little bit and I’d like to share it a little bit. I had dinner with CEO Lee Iacocca who was the mastermind behind Chrysler when it got in trouble. We were having lunch in Beverly Hills when I was training out in California and he served hamburgers. I’m eating this hamburger and I said, “Lee, this is the best hamburger I ever tasted. How do you prepare this?” He said, “It’s simple. We start with filet mignon.”
That is the secret. If you can get your selection process down to where you start with filet mignon or the best, it all gets a lot easier.
I have had 49 world champions. I don’t say that boastfully, but it’s a fact. Of those 49, I actually bought or selected 41 of them. In that process of going through and selecting most of them as yearlings, we’d go to the fall sales and they’d sell 5,000. Saratoga sells 300-400. I look at about 3,000 or a little more a year. It’s a process of learning. I found this and I don’t think it makes any difference if it’s a Quarter Horse, Standardbred, Saddlebred, a Morgan or a Thoroughbred.
There are six things that I zero in on that I think are important. These are intangible things. Things that maybe separate the one that you like a little from the one that might be great for you.
Number 1, I think that he cannot be back in his knees. We have had no luck buying horses that are cap-kneed or a little back in their knees. Everything that I’ve ever done, Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred, that is one thing that showed up and bit us.
Second, I don’t buy horses that don’t have a real kind eye and good head. I think that the head on a horse and the kindness of his eyes dictates pretty much what he’s going to do for you and how much you can lean on him to do it.
The next thing is we buy only horses that have loin strength. The loin of horse is the back. All great athletes – football, basketball, gymnasts, soccer players – have a strong back. A horse that doesn’t have the loin strength, I’m talking about that muscle right in front of the hip, I don’t think he can do what you or I would like to do.
Next, he has to have muscle tone. By that, I mean you see some horses that have kind of soft muscle. I like the horse that has a little bit of a ripple. I like the Bo Jackson type. I want the one that looks like he has the tone to his muscle and that he will be able to take the pressure that I’m going to put on him.
Lastly and the most important thing for me, is every horse has to have a good, long, clean neck. The neck in a horse, for me, is the balance point. Without a neck I’ve had no luck with short-necked horses. Horses where the neck ties in low. None of those have done well for me. All of our 49 champions had great necks.
My good friend Angel Cordero, hall of fame rider, was one day working some horses and he said, “Boss, I have to go over and work a couple of 2-year olds for a guy.”
I said, “Angel, I want you to do me a favor. Take your whip. Put it right in the front of the saddle through his neck. If that whip goes through his ears and extends beyond his ears, get off and say, ‘Hell, I got something better to do.’ You won’t have to waste your time.”
That neck has to be balanced and long. You’ve got to study all of them. Study the good ones and study the bad ones.
Remember when you were a kid and there was a farm scene with all kinds of things and it said at the bottom to find the cat in the picture. You looked and looked and couldn’t find it. Then somebody said “The cat is right here.” They pointed it out and after that, every time you look at the picture, you look right at the cat. Your focus is the cat. It’s the same thing looking at horses. You may have to retrain your eye through thousands of good ones and bad ones and look at your neighbor’s horse and look at the ones walking at the horse show.
The other day a horse walked by, Fred Calhoun’s, trains for the Bret Yarborough family. I said, “Bret, I love that filly. Is she any good?” because I want to test my eye. He said, “She’s really good. She’s made over a million dollars.”
Test your eye all the time.
I was talking to Johnny Trotter and he showed me a picture of two colts and I said, “I like the first one.” Because I want the colt when he’s a yearling or coming 2 to have a little bit of femininity to him because that develops into a beautiful horse when they turn 2 or 3 or 4.
A few years ago, I made a comment … somebody said, “What do you look for in a filly?”
I said, “A filly should have a head like a princess and a butt like a fry cook and a walk like a hooker.”
Think about it.
We look for those that have that movement. Don’t be afraid to put a little more emphasis on the selection of your young horses and their movement. We have found that the movement is so important. So many people look at them and I’m always amazed at the halter.
I went to the Congress and gave out a few trophies and was standing with some judges. They said, “What do you think about the way we select them?” I said, “We haven’t gotten a chance to see any movement here, but I think they ones you’ve got are OK, and you don’t have to ride them …”
I always use this phrase: “We treat everything in the barn like a champion and let it disappoint us.”
Every day, we think we are going to develop a champ. Some disappoint us … in fact, a lot disappoint us. The thing I think is important is if you can find out early what you think the strong strengths are that make your horse. It’s frustrating for you and the horse – that’s true of children too – if you can find out early where the niche is and where they really have gut, you can flaunt and develop that. It really works for you. The same thing for a horse. It’s frustrating and hard on a horse to try to get them to do something that they probably aren’t physically able to do. I call it intuitive awareness.
I was talking to a couple of my dear friends about it. I’ve talked to a lot of young people and I think some of the real 10-12 stars we’ve had come through our program – some of them didn’t get it. Intuitive awareness – being able to get that feel of what they can and can’t do. That, I feel, is training horses. Everybody is doing the obvious things – feeding them, shoeing them, getting aerobic exercise. If you have that feel of maybe we’re pushing or pulling, what they can do and develop that feel, that’s good.
Remember this, people have opinions and horses have the facts. Derby people say that this one or that one is ready for the Derby. The beautiful thing about racing is we don’t have any judges. I don’t care what’s right or wrong or what goes on Facebook, when the gate opens, that’s all that counts. We’re going to settle it right there. I think you got to take the tension out. Take the drama out of training.
We found that you will lose performance if you have any tension. We can’t get a horse to run a mile and a quarter or any race if he’s geared up and we can’t take the tension out. That’s pretty good with your family, too. If you have tension in your workplace, tension in your family, take it out. Make it a harmonious deal from the start.
Be careful that there is a fine line between physical fitness and status. Training horses, overstepping that line can really get you in trouble. We try to get them fit to do what we want them to do and then we lean on them and get into that stalemate. You never take the “try” out of a man, boy or horse. Leave the try in.
Keep it calm, straight and forward. That’s not a bad way to live your life either. You young people need to believe in yourself. Get up every day, thinking, “I can do this. I will get better. I will make a difference. I will get my life where I can make this horse go to places I thought I would never go.”
Young boy once in Baltimore has a passion for baseball. He says, “I am the greatest hitter in the world!” Throws the ball once. Misses. Picks up the ball and says it again. Throws the ball, swings and misses. Picks up the ball and throws it up, swings and misses. Picks up the ball and says, “I’m the greatest pitcher in the world!”
You’ve got to believe in yourself. What do you think the odds are … forgive this personal reference here. I grew up in a little town right in the heart of Wisconsin, 6,000 people. We never had a chance to grow because every time a woman got pregnant, men left town. There was no thought of a Thoroughbred race. If you go to Danville, Wisconsin, and walk down Main Street on the first Saturday in May, ask anyone there on the street what great sporting event might there be today? Probably wouldn’t be three people would say, “We’re going to run the Kentucky Derby.” What are the odds of getting out of there?
I went to a one-room school. One teacher for 34 kids in our school that taught all eight grades. I graduated from 4th grade to the 8th grade. I was in a class of two. I was second in my class every year. When I finally set my sights on being a Thoroughbred horse trainer, went through the Quarter Horse game and got into the Thoroughbreds, I thought to myself, “I want to get as far as I can from this situation.” I don’t want to put any limits on myself. When I won the Kentucky Derby for the first time and that great race, won the first of four of them, I thought that night that I had spent 25 years chasing that goal.
You want to be a better rancher, a better salesman, parent, teacher, then set your sights on something and put 25 years into it. It’ll change your life. Wonderful things will happen.
On that note, don’t be afraid to lose. I’ve lost 100 percent of all the races I didn’t enter. Get out there, put it out there and take the risk. The world belongs to the risk-takers. I’ve won a lot of races that someone said, “He doesn’t belong in there.” Don’t worry about how much milk is spilled, just don’t lose the cow.
The other thing is share and teach because when you teach – I want every one of you when you run into someone, especially the young people, share with them and give them your expertise. Tell them what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right. When you teach … you cannot teach, I cannot explain training or anything else of what we do without a self-evaluation. The beautiful part is when you teach, you have to self-evaluate. When you tell somebody else, you have to see how you did and how you got there. Now our successes motivate us and our failures educate us. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing you’re going to do it over and over. If you’re in the horse business, you’re going to get beat more than you win.
A guy said to me the other day, “Do you feel bad when you’re batting 20 percent? That’s a little low for you.” I said, “Hell, no. I’m training 5 percent of the horses.”
As you go through this whole process of how you get to where you want to go, everybody says “You wouldn’t do that again. The big horse. The great one.” Be lucky enough to go through life and get the great one. We’ve had 49 world champions. Some were great and some weren’t so good.
A few years back in the mid-‘90s, it happened to me. I got a great one. I got a filly that I bought in a sale by Seattle Slew that was so good that she just swept the country. Her name was Landaluce. She did things that were unbelievable. I raced her at Hollywood Park and she broke her maiden. Running off in 1:07 and change, which was unheard of. All the sudden, she’s got all these magazine covers and, in fact, NBC Nightly News devoted two minutes to talking about her. She had won five in a row and was everybody’s choice for horse of the year.
I said, “It happened to me. I got the one that I’d been looking for.” I knew there were no limits. I came to the barn one morning after five straight wins and she had spiked a really high temperature. The next two or three days, she got deathly sick. It turned out she had a blood virus that attacked all the vital organs in her body. I went to the barn and my assistant said, “Landaluce had the best night she’s ever had. I went to the stall and I said, “Oh my gosh, she’s bad. Where’s the vet?” He said, “He just left. He’s at the stable pen.” I said, “Turn him around.” I went to the stall and I’m trying to hold her head up and you could see she couldn’t get up. She fell against the wall and died in my lap.
Now, I thought my dreams died with it. I didn’t realize how good things were going to get from there on in. I tell you what you’ve got to do. The secret I’ve found in getting beat is your attitude. Get up in the morning. It’s the most important choice you make. Make the right choice on your attitude throughout the day. It is the way you can handle those defeats and setbacks. Make that choice every day. Your attitude is so important.
I’ve got a grandson. He went out for football scholarship to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. When he was little, he played Little League. He always asks me to come and see him play. I didn’t really have the time because the games were at 4 and it was chore time and time for me to be out running my horses. One day he said, “We’re in a big game and please come.” I went and I’m running late and the game is already in progress. I went around the side by the dugout and rattled on the fence. I yelled at Brady and said, “I’m here.” He comes around and I ask about the score of 6-0. He says, “Don’t worry about that, Grandpa. We haven’t batted yet.”
That boy is still serving in the Air Force with that attitude and, last month, was appointed mission commander of Air Force One. There’s some young people in here but not as many as I’d hoped. Reach out to the young ones. The American Quarter Horse Association is where the foundation is. We’ve got to influence the young ones. Let them express themselves. Let them know the joy of what so many of us have learned to be true. You cannot underestimate that making a difference and that kindness if you’ll reach out to a young person. People all too soon forget what you say and they’ll little remember what you do but a person never forgets how you make them feel.
Respect the game. Don’t be too important to say you’re sorry when you screw up. Remember the most five important words in the English language are “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Folks, I don’t know if we’ll be in another Derby. We’ve got some good 2-year olds. I don’t think my 3-year olds are good enough this year. My wish for you is that you could experience with your horse that thrill that I’ve had with the horses winning some of these big races. I wish you could feel it once. It’s effective and it’s seductive. That would be my wish for you. I know that I’m going to get up tomorrow like I always do and put my heart, my soul and my mind into trying to win another one. We’re not done yet and we’re not quitting. One last thing. I want you all to live each day like it’s your last and then one day you’ll be right.