There’s no denying it: Thoroughbred racing is a sport of glitz and class. A place where exuberantly broad-rimmed hats aren’t just accepted, they’re encouraged. Where you can wear that pastel-green suit jacket that’s been waiting in the back of your closet or the pair of flamingo socks, too colorful to break out at the office. Where the athletes don’t wear repetitive team colors but vibrant and unique racing silks. But the majority of horse racing fans never make it beyond the stands or the fence near the wire; the Winner’s Circle is a foreign territory, a place the likes of which they might never see. But one of the racing’s most recognizable names has been giving one lucky fan a chance to step inside his world at Saratoga Race Course for more than 30 years years.
When Hall of Fame horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas wins a race at Saratoga, he’s extended the thrill of victory to one lucky, young fan, bringing him or her down to the Winner’s Circle for an impromptu photo op and given that person the opportunity to meet the horse’s winning connections and wave to the crowd as if he or she were part of the ownership team. “About 30 years ago, I got to thinking that the experience and the excitement—even though you’re not connected to the horse—of being able to go down to the Winner’s Circle and share that with everybody, would have an impact on these young people,” says Lukas. So he and his wife started scanning the crowd each time they won a race for an eager young fan to approach. “And we’d just walk up to a perfect stranger—a kid—and I’d say, ‘Do you want to come and take a picture with this winning horse?’ And they’d look up at you and say, ‘What!?’ Even the parents were shocked,” says Lukas.
These fans, both the children and their parents, have good reason to be surprised. It’s the equivalent of Robert Kraft going into the stands after a Super Bowl win, grabbing a young fan and letting him or her hoist the Lombardi Trophy. And Lukas is about as big a star in horse racing as you get. He’s won 20 Breeders’ Cup races (more than any other trainer), a total of five Eclipse Awards and 14 Triple Crown race wins (tied for second all-time). And he’s literally been doing this since he was eight years old. Getting the opportunity not just to meet Lukas but also have your photo taken with him in the Winner’s Circle at a major racetrack is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lukas even pays for the picture to be printed and given to the fan, and if the fan catches up with him after the Winner’s Circle celebration, he’ll sign it, too.
It’s a small token of appreciation from Lukas to racing fans, and he often does it with such little fanfare that it’s gone mostly unreported. The impact of Lukas’ quiet act of generosity has not gone unnoticed among fans—and has had quite an effect on the soon to be 83-year-old racing veteran. “I get letters from guys that say, ‘When I was 8 years old, you took me to the Winner’s Circle. And now I’m a practicing lawyer; I graduated from Georgetown, and I have that picture of us on the wall.’” Lukas has had people stop him at racetracks years later to tell him that they were one of those kids he brought down to the Winner’s Circle, and they never forgot it. “It’s probably the most gratifying thing I do now. At this point in my career, I’ve won with some important horses, and I get a bigger kick out of talking with the fans every time,” Lukas says with a grin. “It’s so easy to do. I can’t believe that my colleagues don’t do it as well.”
So far Lukas has had two first-place finishes at Saratoga this summer. His horse, Bravazo, is running in the 149th Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes tomorrow (August 25). So you better show up to the track. Who knows? One of your kids might just end up in the Winner’s Circle.