Story by: Erica Coghill on September 2, 2020
On the track at Churchill Downs is where Hall of Fame horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas spends most of his time. You’ll find him there seven days a week. The word vacation is foreign to Wayne. He doesn’t slow down. His alarm goes off every morning at 3:30 a.m. Then, once on the track — the 84-year-old spends about five hours atop a quarter horse.
“It gives me an opportunity to see up close and evaluate the condition of the race horses,” said Wayne, who has trained four Kentucky Derby winners. “As they go off and start to warm up, I watch for stiffness or soreness, how they’re breathing, if they look a little rubber-legged or aren’t dancing and prancing — all of those things go into evaluation.”
Riding is a key part of his job, but arthritis in his lower back was pressing on his nerves causing spinal stenosis and threatened his mobility, livelihood and passion.
“I’d gotten to the point where I had little power in my leg, couldn’t stand for any length of time and couldn’t walk very far without getting fatigued and feeling pain,” Wayne said.
He dealt with the pain for years before finally making the decision to move forward with surgery. He connected with Norton Leatherman Spine surgeon Jeffrey L. Gum, M.D., in 2017, and Dr. Gum managed Wayne’s pain with injections.
“I love his confidence — he said, ‘I can help you, but you’ve got to get to a point where you want me to help you and go forward with surgery,’” Wayne said.
“He always had the next big race to train for, so he kept putting off surgery — until it got so bad that he could barely stand up,” Dr. Gum said.
The tipping point for Wayne was when he saddled up a horse for a race and could barely make it back to the grandstand to watch him run.
“When in a professional situation like that, I need to be able to get over there and do my job, and it’s not going to be in an electric scooter,” Wayne said. “I just got to the point where I said, ‘Look, fix it.’”
What he feared would put him out of commission for months, instead landed him back in the saddle in about five weeks.
Dr. Gum used minimally invasive robotic-assisted surgery to fix Wayne’s back. With 3D images of the damaged spine, Dr. Gum used the precision of the robot to perform the surgery.
Norton Leatherman Spine in Louisville and Southern Indiana offers world-class care from surgeons who are recognized nationally and internationally for their innovation, expertise and skill.
The posterior lumbar decompression and fusion surgery was to repair lumbar spinal stenosis, the medical term for the compressed nerves in the lower spine.
“Within the first hour or two after surgery I felt immediate relief,” Wayne said. “I thought … this guy is a miracle worker.”
Wayne was up and walking just hours after surgery last October, giving him plenty of time to recover before an expected busy racing schedule in the spring.
“The Derby was a factor in my decision to get surgery,” Wayne said. “I thought, if I ride this out I’m going to end up at the biggest time of year in bad shape, so I need to take care of this and be on my A-game.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic meant postponement of the Derby. This summer, Wayne was back on the track, training about 40 thoroughbreds. With none of those currently in contention to make the belated 2020 Derby field, a fifth Kentucky Derby win for Wayne may have to wait.
Wayne’s grandson Brady Wayne Lukas announced in late August on Twitter that his grandfather had tested positive for the coronavirus. He has since recovered and is back at work.
“I’m honored he came to me for help,” said Dr. Gum. “It’s great to see him living out his passion again.”
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