Haskin's Preakness Recap: Ox Tale

“Come on, Lukey! Come on, Lukey! Come on, Lukey!”

You don’t witness it very often, but one of those cheering the loudest for D. Wayne Lukas and Oxbow in the final quarter mile of the May 18 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) was one of his opponents in the race.

Once Bob Baffert realized that his colt, Govenor Charlie, was not going to overcome a slow start and would make no impact on the race, and once he realized the 3-5 favorite, Orb, was coming up empty, his attention quickly turned to the 77-year-old Lukas, his one-time idol and adversary, with whom he has bonded in recent years.

As Oxbow hit the finish line following his wire-to-wire theft of the 138th Preakness, Baffert, after rooting the colt home as if he were his own, said, “How great was that? I’m glad I came.”

It was Lukas who had called Baffert, who had been hedging about whether to run Govenor Charlie in the Preakness, and told him, “You have to come; we’ll have fun. I need some support.”

Together, they combined for a memorable weekend, with Lukas also finishing first and third in the grade II Longines Dixie Stakes with 24-1 shot Skyring and Optimizer, respectively, and Baffert winning the previous day’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) with Fiftyshadesofhay, the Chick Lang Stakes Presented by Apple Ford with Zee Bros, and the final race on the Preakness card with Code West.

The two “Derby Dominators” of the mid- to late ‘90s, combined to win five consecutive Kentucky Derbys, five Preaknesses (gr. I), and four Belmonts (gr. I) from 1994-2000. During that time they were fierce competitors on and off the track, competing for the attention of high profile owners, such as Robert Lewis and The Thoroughbred Corp.

But both Hall of Fame trainers and former Quarter-Horse legends have been humbled by a decade-long Triple Crown drought, during which they managed only a single Preakness score (by Baffert with Lookin at Lucky in 2010) since 2002. The passing years have mellowed both trainers and they now have a close relationship and deep admiration for each other.

Following the Preakness, Baffert sought out Lukas, put his arm around his shoulder and simply said, “That was awesome. Alright, man, congratulations.”

“We’ve shared a lot over the years, starting with our Quarter Horse background,” Baffert said. “I’m very close to Wayne now. We’ve had to deal with a lot of the same stuff. We were both very successful and hated by many. But people forget how much Wayne has done for this sport. I was over his house, and I thought I had the most awesome trophy collection until I saw his. He roots for me and I root for him. As we get older we appreciate things more. I was so happy winning the Black-Eyed Susan.”

Said Lukas, who is the only trainer in both the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, “For Bob to come over right after the race to congratulate me really meant a lot.”

The 2013 Preakness will be remembered as the downfall of Orb and his quest to win the Triple Crown for the old-school team of trainer Shug McGaughey and co-owners Stuart Janney III and the Phipps family. While it was a bitter blow to the traditionalists who had relished their unforgettable trip down memory lane in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the Preakness provided another great storyline, filled with historical relevance.

Lukas’s victory was his 14th in a classic event, breaking the record he held with the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. And to have a 77-year-old trainer win a classic with a horse ridden by 50-year-old jockey who had had returned to the saddle this year after being retired for seven years, made it one of the most memorable dual comebacks ever. For Gary Stevens, who has won classics for both Lukas and Baffert, he now has three victories in the Derby, three in the Preakness, and three in the Belmont. The only other jockey with at least three wins in all three races is the legendary Eddie Arcaro.

But before the seven-year itch brought him back to the saddle, Stevens' thrills existed only through movies and television. The last great horse he rode before his return was "Seabiscuit" in 2003, and when you're aboard the winner of the "Race of the Century," it doesn't even matter that it was pretend and existed only on the big screen.

Just when Stevens and his achy 50-year-old knees were resigned to riding in contrived races, even as an aging crotchety rider on TV, HBO pulled the plug on their series "Luck" and Stevens was thrust back into the real world again, which meant sitting behind a microphone and analyzing races and watching other jockeys hop aboard good horses right in front of him. He could practically reach out and touch them.

Finally, the urge to get back in the saddle proved too great and Stevens decided to embark on the unthinkable -- a riding comeback, this time on real-life horses in real-life races. His return was an immediate success, but when he went through his first slump, he began having doubts. That is, until a tough, tenacious colt named Oxbow made it all worthwhile on a chilly, damp afternoon in Baltimore. 

So, history marches on in the 2013 Triple Crown. Although Oxbow is owned by Calumet Farm, it has no other connection to the dynasty built by Warren Wright and continued by his widow Lucille Markey other than the name and property. The Wright family is gone and the famed devil’s red colors were purchased years ago by the Brazilian group Stud TNT, but the record books will still bear the name of the now eight-time Preakness-winning owner.

Just when it looked as if Thoroughbred racing had lost its historical significance and had been taken over by a younger generation of owners, trainers and jockeys, here comes names like Phipps, Janney, and Calumet Farm; McGaughey and Lukas; and Gary Stevens in the first two legs of the Triple Crown to remind everyone there are no age limits in the Sport of Kings, where passion and hard work fuel youthful exuberance.

And then we come to Oxbow, who like Orb and Preakness runner-up Itsmyluckyday, is a throwback to another era, when horses made of sinews of steel raced hard and raced often, regardless of the track, surface, and distance.

If any horse deserved to be rewarded with a classic victory it is Oxbow, a son of Awesome Again – Tizamazing, by Cees Tizzy. What makes this pedigree so remarkable is that Awesome Again won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Tizamazing’s dam, Cees Song also produced Tiznow, two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic; Budroyale, who raced 52 times, finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; and Tizso, dam of Paynter, the 2012 Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner who was beaten a neck in the Belmont Stakes and later overcame tremendous odds to survive a series of ordeals that would have killed most horses. And now Cees Song has the dam of a Preakness winner. It should also be pointed out that all the aforementioned horses are full siblings by Cees Tizzy.

With his Preakness victory, Oxbow now has raced 11 times, the last 10 in a seven-month period, during which he has competed at seven different tracks in six different states from New York to California and as far south as Louisiana and Arkansas. He’s been ridden by seven different jockeys, and each time, he ran hard, often on or near the pace.

In his six races prior to the Preakness, all two-turn graded stakes, he had to overcome bad posts, wide trips, premature moves, and even being taken back to last in a 10-horse field. Four times in a five-race period he drew either post 10 or 11 and got hung wide every time, then was moved prematurely. In the Kentucky Derby he had to break from the dreaded rail. Despite making a big move to challenge for the lead along the inside through suicidal fractions of :22.57, :45.33, and 1:09.80 over a sloppy track on which he had never raced, he still managed to finish sixth in the 19-horse field and was the only horse who raced near the hot pace to finish in the top half of the field.

The only time in those six races he drew a good post and had a clean trip, he won the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) by 11 1/2 lengths, defeating eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul. In the Preakness, he drew perfectly in post 6, while Orb drew the rail, accompanied by a chorus of groans.

It was a frustrating winter and spring for Lukas, who kept insisting Oxbow was a special horse, despite his defeats. The colt, bred in Kentucky by Richard Santulli’s Colts Neck Stables, had been purchased at the Keeneland September yearling sale by Brad Kelley’s Bluegrass Hall, which has since morphed into Calumet Farm, for $250,000.

“That is a serious horse,” Lukas said of Oxbow back in January when Kelley still raced under the name Bluegrass Hall. “He’s maturing and getting better, and has such an efficiency of action. He enjoys it and gets in that cruising speed and just stays there.”

But after the LeComte romp came a tough half-length defeat in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) under Jon Court and a head defeat in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) under Mike Smith, both times having to race very wide and making a premature move. When Gary Stevens hopped aboard for the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and took the colt back to last and way out of his comfort zone, he felt he had learned a lot about him and looked forward to riding him back in the Kentucky Derby. But the blazing pace and being stuck down on the inside compromised his chances, and when Stevens worked him a half in :49 4/5 at Churchill Downs May 13 and saw how beautifully he relaxed, he started feeling as if the third time might be the charm. He and Oxbow were now a team who appeared for the first time to be in sync with each other.

Stevens needed a boost about now, as his once remarkable comeback had hit a snag and he began having doubts for the first time whether it was a wise move coming back.

Lukas was getting more and more confident with each passing day, but he felt Orb was an “exceptional horse” and a potential Triple Crown winner, and that tempered whatever enthusiasm he normally would have before a big race. Lukas also had a talented colt in Will Take Charge, who got stopped while moving with Orb in the Derby, and he threw his speedy colt Titletown Five into the mix for good measure.

Although both his main  hopes were leading 3-year-olds, with Will Take Charge having already beaten Oxbow in the Rebel and now a threat coming off the Derby debacle, Lukas’s face always seemed to light up when he discussed Oxbow.

“If he were a basketball player, he’d be a complete gym rat,” Lukas said. “He’s a tough sonofagun, and you wouldn’t be able to get him out of there. I told Gary if you go ahead and hook anybody (in the Preakness) he’ll bring them to their knees, because there’s no quit in him. If he gets the trip he’s definitely dangerous.”

Lukas’s lady friend, Laurie Krause, who has been in the horse industry all her life in the horse show world, said she would be terrified to ride Oxbow.

“That horse just cracks me up,” she said. “He’s like a little fire-breathing dragon. He has a Napoleon complex. It’s like, ‘I may be little, but you don’t want to mess with me.’ Wayne is crazy about all his horses, but he’s really fond of this one.”

There were two other works prior to the Preakness that raised the proverbial eyebrows and both were pretty much identical. On the Sunday before the race, Itsmyluckyday worked five furlongs between races at Monmouth Park and lit up the track with a :47 1/5 half, out five furlongs in :59 3/5 to the cheers of the crowd.

Trainer Eddie Plesa had made a big move following Itsmyluckyday’s 15th-place finish in the Derby, in which the colt didn’t seem to handle the sloppy track. Plesa had a chance to get John Velazquez to ride the Holy Bull (gr. III) and Gulfstream Park Derby winner and he grabbed it, replacing regular rider Elvis Trujillo.

It was Trujillo, however, who worked Itsmyluckyday. Following the work, Plesa and Trujillo put their arms around each other, and Plesa told him, “I just want to thank you. I owe you.”

Trujillo replied, “I want to thank you for the opportunity and I wish you the best of luck.”

The following day came the much-anticipated work by Orb, who was scheduled to van down to Baltimore later than same morning. The son of Malibu Moon indicated his sharpness as well, working his half in :47 flat, out in :59 2/5.

On Wednesday morning, Lukas and his eight-horse contingent arrived at Pimlico following a 12 1/2-hour van ride from Louisville.

“The horses are doing better than I am,” said Lukas, as he set up shop in his favorite corner of the Preakness Stakes barn. “That’s a long hard trip. At my age, you wouldn’t think I’d be in that truck for that many hours.”

Later that day, Mylute, Departing, and Govenor Charlie arrived on a flight from Louisville. The Preakness would be a reunion of sorts, with Orb and Departing (owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider) having grown up in the same paddock at Claiborne, adding to the old-time movie theme of this year’s Triple Crown.

The following morning, Lukas jogged his three Preakness horses, and as expected, Oxbow was like a coiled spring, jogging briskly off the track as if he wanted to do a lot more.

But it was Oxbow’s gallop the next morning that raised the spirits of everyone in the Lukas camp. The pocket rocket, who was always a handful to gallop, demonstrated the kind of controlled aggression Lukas was hoping to see. Lukas and exercise rider Rudy Quevedo had been working on getting the colt to relax and this gallop told them they had succeeded.

“I’ve been on him since he was a baby,” Quevedo said. “He has a small neck and he pulls so hard he’s difficult to gallop. Some people on TV keep saying that he gallops sideways, but he doesn’t gallop sideways; he’s just so strong you have to pull on him, because he wants to go all the time.

“But, oh, man, this last gallop, I jogged him straight and then galloped him from the wire back to the seven-eighths pole. He was strong, but relaxed this time, and when he came off the track he was jumping and kicking. I told Wayne, ‘We got this race.’”

Lukas added, “I’ve been working all week on him. I’ve even done some creative training to get him to relax. I’ve changed a few things up a little bit; gave him some open gallops; went backwards a couple of days. I know one thing; we haven’t seen his best.”

The morning of the race, Lukas was confidently talking about his superfectas, if indeed he actually bet superfectas. At the other end of the barn, McGaughey appeared to be relieving some tension by first sweeping the entire area inside and outside the entrance to the barn and raking the same area for about 15 minutes. Dell Hancock and Dilschneider showed up around 5:30 to watch Departing go to the track. “I wouldn’t miss it,” Dilschneider said.

Plesa, who was thrilled with the way Itsmyluckyday was looking and galloping, said on a scale of one to 10, his colt was a 10-plus. All he was concerned about was the weather, which was calling for possible intermittent showers.

“He’s been doing so great mentally and physically, I wish the race was last week,” he said. “I wish it was yesterday. I wish it was the first race today.”

The previous morning, Mylute had entertained a group of school kids by allowing them to pet him, while he just stood there like an old pony. A few yards away, the colt’s co-owner, Paul Bulmahn, of GoldMark Farm, was happily raking up manure outside the barn and dumping it in the manure pile. Now that’s an owner you have to admire.

Except for a light drizzle that fell for a short while in mid-afternoon, the day was dry and the track was fast, much to the delight of Plesa and most of the others.

Orb was pounded at the windows, his odds plummeting to 3-5 by post time. Everyone it seemed wanted to grab a piece of history.

The running of the race was for the most part uneventful. Stevens broke well on Oxbow, getting a minor bump from Will Take Charge, and cruised up to the lead, where Goldencents awaited after pretty much crawling to the front. Stevens looked over at Kevin Krigger, way up in the saddle on Goldencents, and saw that he was not exactly interested in any confrontations. Stevens didn’t go looking to play the role of pacesetter; it was just handed to him. Not only did Krigger not want it, neither did Julien Leparoux on Titletown Five. The speedy Govenor Charlie broke a step slowly and then was pinched back a little, winding up near the back of the pack. That left Oxbow with a length lead going into the first turn, a surprising turn of events, considering Goldencents’ trainer said the morning of the race, “We’re going.”

Stevens found himself in almost the exact same position he was in the race before on Calumet’s Skyring in the Dixie, stealing away on a non-contested lead.

Orb had broken cleanly and had the inside route all to himself, but Joel Rosario didn’t seem to want any part of the rail and eased Orb out a couple of paths. But without an escape route he was forced to remain inside horses, as the others bunched up around him. Velazquez had Itsmyluckyday out in the clear on the outside in fourth as Will Take Charge and Mylute brought up the rear through an opening quarter in :23.94.

Oxbow was still lulling them asleep on the lead through a half in :48.60, as Rosario managed to pick his way through horses and into contention, moving up into fourth, then third. But just when it looked as if Orb was going take matters in his own hands he began to lose touch with the leaders and surprisingly dropped back to seventh, while seeming fairly disinterested at that point. It is very possible, however, he was struggling with the track. Rosie Napravnik, on Mylute, had originally intended on following Orb passing the stands, but when she saw how deep the inside was, she said, "I'm getitng out of here."

When Stevens hung up a 1:13.26 three-quarters, the handwriting was on the wall. A horse with Oxbow’s tactical speed, toughness, and pedigree wasn’t about to call it quits. Stevens must have felt like a bank robber hopping in the getaway car with no one even noticing that the bank had been robbed. All he kept thinking was, "Shame on everybody."

“When I saw Oxbow’s ears fluttering back and forth at the three-eighths pole, I thought of the 1988 Kentucky Derby (aboard Winning Colors) and I asked him to kick in from there and try to get some separation from the field,” he said.

It was now obvious that Orb wasn’t going to be a factor. Departing looked to be menacing along the inside, but it was Itsmyluckyday and Mylute who proved to be the strongest horses, although the latter had a lot of ground to make up off such a soft pace. Departing had no kick after turning for home and Goldencents was done.

Oxbow, meanwhile did kick into another gear through a :24.88 quarter and spurted away to a three-length lead. The Oxbow Incident was nearing its conclusion. Itsmyluckyday took up the chase, with Mylute trying to close the gap, another two lengths behind. Orb was going at an even pace, but his best hope was a fourth-place finish. Stevens went to a series of right-handed whips and Oxbow kept finding more. Itsmyluckyday continued to peck away at the lead, but had no chance at this point of catching Oxbow.

With a solid final three-sixteenths in :19.40, Oxbow hit the wire 1 3/4 lengths in front of Itsmyluckyday, with a gallant Mylute falling a half-length short of the place spot. It was another 6 3/4 lengths back to Orb in fourth. The final time of 1:57.54 for the 1 3/16 miles was the slowest Preakness since Carry Back in 1961. It must be noted, however, that the previous day’s Pimlico Special (gr. III) was run in 1:58.50, with a three-quarter fraction in 1:14.18. The 1 1/8-mile Black-Eyed Susan, also the day before, was run in a sluggish 1:52.73.

So, for Stuart Janney, his Triple Crown attempt is not going end in victory at Belmont, as the poets would script it, in the shadow of Ruffian’s grave. For McGaughey and the Phipps family, there will be no Part Two to their long-awaited Kentucky Derby dream.

For Gary Stevens, however, he has gone from playing a broken down washed up jockey on TV to reliving real-life images of Silver Charm and Point Given draped in black-eyed susans, proving that the best scripts are the ones you write yourself.

For Wayne Lukas, he no longer lives life in excess and now is content merely being content. And that means being around his 48 horses every morning, bonding with other trainers, and even riding in a van with them for 12 1/2 hours. The only similarity between Lukas today and the old Lukas is that when he gets off that van after 12 1/2 hours, there isn’t a single crease in his jeans.

He admittedly is more comfortable now in his own skin and no longer feels he has to wake up every morning proving to others he is a superior horseman. Although he says it would have been great for racing to have Orb trying for the Triple Crown, he “gets paid to spoil the dreams,” not to mention having the satisfaction of seeing his training skills turn an aggressive free spirit like Oxbow into a classic winner.

As for Lukas still going strong at 77, Laurie Krause says, “He’s dynamic, he really is.”

But like another dynamo, Oxbow, Lukas also has learned how to relax, and after 13 years of trying to recapture past glories, he, too, is a classic winner.

All photos are by Steve Haskin.


Wayne Lukas liked what he saw from Oxbow in his final gallop Friday


Not enough light to nail the focus on this, but the action was good and showed how keen Orb was before his Friday gallop


Even after his gallop, Orb still is in the bit with his mouth open


Mylute has plenty of little hands petting him at once, as he entertains a group of school kids


No one looked or trained any better than Itsmyluckyday


Shug apparently had a lot of nervous energy on Preakness morning, as he swept and then raked the area in and around his barn for some 15 minutes


Orb is still on his toes before the race


Next three shots need no explanation


Happy Hall of Famers reunited in victory


That's the Lukas victory smile we all remember

 
Cake cutting time

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