LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The smile on D. Wayne Lukas' face shows how much he still loves what he's doing.
The 82-year-old trainer Hall of Fame trainer is still going strong, and especially enjoys this week. Lukas is back in the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2015 with colt Bravazo running on Saturday, which has the four-time winner savoring being part of horse racing's crown jewel.
"I probably enjoy it a little bit more now," said Lukas, who has earned more than $278 million lifetime and won 4,804 races, including 14 Triple Crown starts.
"I know that isn't going to go on forever and I enjoy the whole atmosphere. It's easier for me. The press conferences, everything, is a little easier. I've been there and know when to push and pull on that deal a little bit."
Lukas' return comes 30 years after his first Derby win with Winning Colors started an impressive run that included triumphs by Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone ('96) and Charismatic ('99).
For Lukas' fellow horsemen, the comeback also seems to have added wholeness to this year's Derby.
"We need Wayne," said fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whom Lukas calls a good friend. "Wayne is so important to this race because he always set the bar for me. I want to be where Wayne is."
Todd Pletcher, Lukas' onetime protege' who is on the verge of breaking his mentor's record of 48 Derby starters, said: "The Derby is always better when Wayne's in it."
Lukas always believed he'd back in the Derby and said his gut feeling that some horses under his watch were not Derby-ready led him to be a race spectator. Although Bravazo ran eighth in the Louisiana Derby and is among four 50-1 longshots in Saturday's 20-horse Kentucky Derby field , the trainer views the colt's two wins before the Louisiana Derby as proof of his worthiness.
Lukas is also motivated to give Calumet Farm its record ninth Derby winner and first since Forward Pass was awarded the win 50 years ago after Dancer's Image was disqualified for a failed postrace drug test.
While Lukas noted that owners determine whether to run a horse, his experience and success carries weight in some decisions. History clearly seems to have factored in Bravazo's case, which is fitting for Calumet and Lukas since both have made their share of it in the Derby.
"You've got Calumet Farm, and it would be something to put them back out," Lukas added.
The pairing of trainer and farm appears tailor made, but Lukas has maintained a physical and sentimental presence at Churchill Downs regardless of his participation in the marquee race.
Lukas' barn is just off the second turn entering the track's backstretch is a required stop for horsemen, jockeys, media and spectators. The time away has fueled a give-back philosophy that has the octogenarian chatting up folks who drop by, and standing outside observing how the sport he loves hums along.
Looking in on the Derby from outside allowed him to appreciate the race and evaluate the horses he hoped would put him back in the field. He has also enjoyed watching fellow trainers endure the same trial and error with pupils, as he did decades ago and now.
Excited as Lukas is to be back with Bravazo, he is even more encouraged about the 2-year-old prospects he has coming up. The end of his career doesn't appear to be coming any time soon as the trainer in the wide-brimmed cowboy hat seems determined to remain a Derby fixture.
Mindful of his age, Lukas said the caveat is how long he will be physically able to do the job. To see him atop his horse watching his latest Derby charge at work leaves no doubt about his energy or desire.
"You feel like you're blessed to have a career and nobody else is at that age to say that they're here," Lukas said. "You reflect and say maybe if it's not this year, maybe next year, but there no guarantees there will be a next year.
"You reach out and take advantage of the whole thing if you're enjoying it that much."