LOUISVILLE, Ky. — D. Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens know what it’s like hearing the roar of the crowd and inhaling the intoxicating scent from dozens of red roses in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.
At their advanced ages, they want to feel it all again.
On Saturday, they’ll make another run at winning America’s greatest race, and if experience counts, this duo might have an edge.
Lukas and Stevens are teaming with Oxbow, while the trainer considered the sport’s elder statesman also will saddle Will Take Charge. The colts will be Lukas’ 46th and 47th Derby starters, the most of any trainer in the race’s 138-year history. He has won it four times, but not since 1999.
“I don’t feel any different than when I came in here at 50. There’s still the adrenaline rush. There’s still the enthusiasm,” Lukas said. “The horse is the most important ingredient. You better have the horse and then some luck.”
Stevens has ridden in 18 Derbies and won three times, including twice with Lukas — 1988 aboard the filly Winning Colors and 1995 with Thunder Gulch. The 50-year-old jockey is four months into a comeback after being retired for seven years.
At 77, Lukas would be the oldest trainer to win the Derby.
“The karma is good between us,” Lukas said. “The experience factor for me is so big here. With 20-horse fields, having been there and won, it makes a huge difference for me. I’m going to be comfortable and not worry about it.”
Stevens considers Lukas to be a second father, while the trainer’s only son, Jeff, is like a brother.
“There’s definitely a mutual respect,” the jockey said. “We’re both highly motivated. We haven’t lost our need for big moments. Wayne is able to transmit that enthusiasm level to his whole team. I’ve been part of the team for a long time.”
Stevens resumed riding in early January, the same week he got a call from Lukas advising him that the trainer had a couple of promising 3-year-old colts who could make the Derby.
“I was kind of thinking, ‘Yeah right, wouldn’t that be great,’ and here we are,” said Stevens, who juggles his duties as a racing TV commentator with his riding commitments.
He had quit in 2005, driven out by unrelenting knee pain that had him downing anti-inflammatories every day for the previous 15 years. Stevens battled his weight, too, during the final five years he was riding.
In retirement, he ballooned to 134 pounds — huge for a jockey. Once he decided to mount a comeback, he hired a personal trainer, a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. Now he’s down to 113 pounds, and is mentally relieved knowing that he doesn’t have to sweat off extra pounds.
“I couldn’t feel better,” he said.
Retired Hall of Fame rider Pat Day bumped into Stevens outside Lukas’ barn at Churchill Downs and told him, “You’re looking good.”
Stevens is the seventh different jockey to ride Oxbow, who is 2 for 9 in his short career. He was aboard for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, where the colt finished fifth, teaching his rider a valuable lesson about lagging behind too long.
“He doesn’t want to be taken ahold of and come from behind,” said Stevens, who unsuccessfully tried to weave Oxbow through traffic. “He’s a free-running horse.”
Lukas might have dumped a less seasoned rider, but he and Stevens have been through too much together.
“He gives a horse a chance to win. You get riders that don’t give you a chance to win a lot of times,” Lukas said. “The good ones all do that. That’s all you can ask.”
Lukas likes Oxbow’s high-cruising rate and high energy level.
“He’s a tough cookie and he runs that way,” he said. “He’s so competitive.”
So are the two wily veterans, whose lined faces give away their years spent chasing victories at the racetrack.
Another Derby victory would boost both Lukas and Stevens in the record book. Lukas would break a tie for second with Herbert “Derby Dick” Thompson, who also won four. Ben Jones holds the record with six wins.
Stevens would tie the late Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker for second with his fourth win.
Oxbow is owned by legendary Calumet Farm, home to two Triple Crown champions, a record eight Derby winners, and both Ben Jones and two-time Derby-winning trainer Jimmy Jones.
“Wouldn’t this be something if Calumet could win another one?” marveled Stevens.
It would be big for the reunited Hall of Fame trainer and jockey, too.
“I don’t just want to go out there and ride around,” Stevens said. “I want to get my picture taken.”
AP freelance writer Josh Abner contributed to this report.