Up until the five-sixteenths pole of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Gary Stevens was envisioning a fairy tale victory aboard the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Oxbow only five months after returning to the saddle following a seven-year retirement.
But that image lasted only about three or four seconds. Oxbow had expended too much energy moving up into a suicidal pace set by the newly blinkered Palace Malice. After turning into the stretch, all Stevens could do was sit back and watch Orb storm past everyone en route to a popular two-length victory.
If Stevens had any immediate thoughts of turning the tables on Orb in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), he quickly got a reality check when he saw firsthand how the Derby winner pulled up after the race.
“Orb was still a fresh horse after the race, and the reason I know that is, he wasn’t looking to pull up,” Stevens said. “When the outrider came up next to him to pull him up, Orb was like a 2-year-old going, ‘What are you doing?’ He propped under Joel (Rosario) and I was right behind him and almost ran over the top of him.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do to turn the tables on him. All I can hope for is that Orb doesn’t show up the same horse that showed up in the Derby and has some traffic problems. I like Oxbow’s style of running; he’s going to be close to the pace and won’t have traffic to negotiate. But I’m going to be honest with you; we’re all up against it. I liked what I saw from the winner and I think we’re seeing a colt with untapped resources right now who is still improving, and that’s a scary thought. I’m going to have to figure things out after I see the post positions and then devise a strategy. But I do know I’ll be close to the pace or on the lead.”
Stevens certainly is not conceding the second leg of the Triple Crown to Orb and is looking forward to taking him on again at Pimlico with a colt he is learning more about with each race. So far, it’s been trial and error with Oxbow, a horse with a powerful engine who can get very aggressive when pumped up. But after the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby, Stevens should have a good handle on him, and if the two can get on the same page for the Preakness, expect a huge performance.
Stevens thought on a couple of occasions that was going to happen in the Derby, not only at the five-sixteenths pole when he disposed of Palace Malice, but before the race as well.
“It wasn’t just getting to the Kentucky Derby and being a participant that got me excited, it was being out in the post parade and seeing how Oxbow was handling everything,” Stevens said. “From the time in the paddock to being out on the racetrack and hearing My Old Kentucky Home to walking up to the starting gate I had a smile on my face. I told the pony girl next me I loved the way this horse was warming up; he was giving me all the right signals. I walked in the gate just full of confidence, and he stood in there like a perfect gentleman. He was loaded first and stuck his nose in the “V” of the starting gate and was looking down the racetrack. He was really focused, and that gave me a great feeling.”
But being aboard Oxbow before and after a race is not quite the same as being on Oxbow during a race, as the son of Awesome Again has had to overcome horrible posts, moving too soon on several occasions, and being taken back to last, which is not where you want to have a horse with his natural speed.
If you want to know what bad posts are all about, just look at Oxbow’s past performances. In his last six starts, all around two turns, he has had to break from post 10 three times and post 11 once, losing a ton of ground each time. Those would have been great posts in the Kentucky Derby, but he went the other way and drew post 2, winding up on the dreaded rail following the scratch of Black Onyx. In addition to his bad posts and getting hung very wide on the first turn, he moved too soon in the Risen Star (gr. II) and Rebel (gr. II), and then with Stevens aboard for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, he wound up last from the 10-post in the 10-horse field, which is a complete deviation from his normal style of running.
“The Arkansas Derby didn’t go well,” Stevens said. “I knew what I had done wrong immediately when it happened early in the race. I’m a guy who lives and dies by the sword and if I make a mistake I call it out and try to correct the problem. I believe it’s alright to make a mistake; just don’t make the same mistake twice. I learned in the Arkansas Derby you can’t just reach up and take a big hold him; you have to make him happy. He’s a cool horse to be around and he’s very competitive once those doors open up or when you’re working him. When he realizes he’s going to have a workout he becomes very aggressive.”
Stevens was impressed with Oxbow’s sixth-place finish, considering the fact that on that sloppy sealed track, he ran testing fractions of :22 4/5, :46, and 1:10 4/5 and was the only one of the early pace factors to finish in the top half of the field. The others – Palace Malice, Verrazano, Itsmyluckyday, Goldencents, and Falling Sky – finished 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th, and 19th, respectively. As a result of the brutal pace (:22 2/5, :45 1/5, and 1:09 4/5) the first five finishers – Orb, Golden Soul, Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion, and Mylute -- came from as far back as 17th, 15th, 18th, 12th, and 18th at one point in the race.
“I was real proud of Oxbow,” Stevens said. “He has a huge tank, and what was great about him is he had every right to just chuck it in, as the rest of the pace horses did, and he battled on to the finish line.
“The Arkansas Derby had been the only time I’d been on his back in the afternoon. I was fortunate enough to get to work him twice prior to the Kentucky Derby, and I was really impressed with his demeanor. Wayne would have me get on his back about 20 minutes prior to the work and walk him around the barn area a couple of laps and then go to the gap, so he could be the first one on the track. He handled he crowd and all the photographers with so much class.”
We know what Oxbow is capable of and how dangerous he can be when things go right for him. After all, the only time he drew a good post and had a good trip was in the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) and all he did was win by 11 1/2 lengths, demolishing eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul. We know what Lukas and Stevens are capable of in the Preakness, having won the second leg of the Triple Crown seven times between them, with Lukas winning five of them. Heck, even the name Calumet Farm, despite the owner and colors change, is a part of Preakness history, with seven victories. So, that’s a total of 14 Preakness wins for the owner, trainer, and jockey.
If Oxbow can escape the post position draw unscathed for a change and gets a typical Gary Stevens classic ride, who knows what this horse is capable of?
Derby Leftovers: Oxbow and Orb - All Photos by Steve Haskin
Oxbow about to break off in his work with Gary Stevens aboard.
Lukas' pair of Oxbow (left) and Will Take Charge will try Orb again in Preakness.
Oxbow can be a bundle of energy in the morning.
Orb displays the radiant smile of a Kentucky Derby winner.
To all those who doubted Orb
Finally playing it straight