Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has participated in 19 Travers over 30 years, winning three of them. The common denominator in those three? Toughness.
All three – Corporate Report (1991), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Will Take Charge (2013) – survived running in all three legs of the Triple Crown without winning one. They then had one race between the Belmont Stakes and the Travers.
“The ones I’ve had the best luck with is when I can really lean on them,” Lukas said.
Bravazo, who will represent Lukas’s 20th Travers starter in Saturday’s 149th renewal of the Midsummer Derby at Saratoga – certainly fits the profile. Bravazo ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown – the only other horse besides Triple Crown winner Justify to do so this year – and then finished second to Good Magic in the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park four weeks ago.
Lukas sees no regression in the son of Awesome Again, who will be making his eighth start of the year in the Travers.
“He’s actually put on weight, he looks stronger, and his attitude is better,” Lukas said. “I think he’s going to run his best race so far, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he runs a better one the next time.”
In 2013, Will Take Charge finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, seventh in the Preakness, and 10th in the Belmont. After finishing second in the Jim Dandy, Will Take Charge won the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby. He got beat a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and won the Grade 1 Clark to earn an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old.
“If you like them, don’t give up on them,” Lukas said. “That’s what we get paid to do, not make a snap judgement.”
Thunder Gulch, in 1995, won the Derby and the Belmont while finishing third in the Preakness. He won the Swaps at Hollywood Park before winning the Travers. In his 3-year-old year, Thunder Gulch went 7 for 10.
Lukas, who has trained 25 individual champions over his Hall of Fame career, said “Thunder Gulch was probably the best horse I ever trained.”
Corporate Report didn’t make it to the races until March 3 of his 3-year-old year. He ended up running ninth in the Derby, second in the Preakness, and fourth in the Belmont. After running second in both the Swaps and Haskell, Corporate Report beat Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel in the Travers.
“He was a solid, blue-collar type horse,” Lukas said of Corporate Report. “He brought his ‘A’ game that day. When he showed up, he was okay.”
Bravazo has only 3 wins from 12 starts. His victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in February basically earned Bravazo a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Bravazo finished eighth in the Louisiana Derby, a performance that might have deterred some from going on to Kentucky.
Not Lukas or his client Brad Kelley, the proprietor of Calumet Farm.
“Brad Kelley is very strong on the theory ‘they’re bred to run, run them,’ ” Lukas said. “Lead them over there. Now you can’t do it just because he feels that way, but if you get one that you can do it with, he’s all for it.”
Lukas felt confident he could get Bravazo ready for the Kentucky Derby, and the horse finished a respectable sixth, beaten eight lengths by Justify with a bit of a wide trip.
“He was trying to run at the end and a few of them weren’t,” Lukas said. “The Derby was better than it looked. The first time in world-class competition and I felt the spark was there and we could move forward from there.”
In the Preakness, Bravazo, who had been sitting off dueling leaders Good Magic and Justify, made a late surge at Justify but fell a half-length short.
“That was our best chance to beat him, and we knew it before we led him over there,” Lukas said. “He likes a bit of moisture in the track, and he was training well. Looking down the shed row at everybody else, I thought we had an excellent chance to beat Justify that day. But I was probably not realistic, in hindsight.”
In the Belmont, Bravazo was boxed in along the inside but even when he got running room he came up empty, finishing 8 1/2 lengths behind Justify who completed the 13th Triple Crown in history.
Lukas, as he is known to do, pressed on. He prepared Bravazo for the Haskell, and the horse responded with a decent second-place finish, three lengths behind Good Magic and six lengths in front of the rest of the field. Bravazo lost a hind shoe in the Haskell.
Lukas has liked the way Bravazo has trained toward the Travers. On Sunday, Bravazo worked five furlongs in 1:00.07, starting three lengths behind a stablemate and finishing a length in front at the wire.
“He likes to run at a target, so I gave him something to run at,” Lukas said. “I’m not worried about a target [Saturday]; they’ll be targets all over the place.”
Lukas turns 83 on Sept. 2. He is three years removed from having heart surgery. Lukas ranks as the third-winningest trainer all time in purse money won ($279,322,013) and eighth in wins (4,807).
“I love trying to develop a horse,” Lukas said. “Back in February, nobody knew this horse was alive.”
Lukas said everybody will know Bravazo is in the Travers.
“We’ll keep this race very honest, not saying we’ll win it, but we’ll keep it honest,” Lukas said. “Nobody will be stealing it on Saturday.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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