LOUISVILLE — Having just returned from his grandson Brady's graduation from the Air Force Academy, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was short on sleep but fresh with perspective as he sent his horses out over the Churchill Downs track Thursday morning.
"Oh, my gosh, it was so inspiring," Lukas remarked. "It makes you wonder why we get caught up in these races and everything once you see that. But we'll get back to reality here today."
Lukas' current reality centers around keeping Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow at the forefront of his own group of heralded classmates.
The son of Awesome Again posted his first major work since his upset victory in the Preakness on May 18, drilling 6 furlongs in 1:14.60 at Churchill Downs on Thursday as he prepares for his expected start in next weekend's Belmont Stakes.
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Oxbow was among the first horses onto the track following the renovation break and broke off in his typically headstrong manner from the 51/2-furlong pole. The Calumet Farm color bearer clocked splits of :24.20, :35.80, :47.60, 1:00.60 and galloped out 7 furlongs in 1:29.40.
"The thing I liked the most about Oxbow's work was the first eighth," said Lukas, who earned his record 14th win in a Triple Crown race with Oxbow's Preakness triumph. "I think he went in :132⁄5 and that's what we want to see. We've really turned the corner with this horse I think in as far as having him grab the bit and charge that first half-mile. We've got a much more manageable racehorse now."
Kentucky Derby winner Orb was the overwhelming favorite heading into the Preakness but Oxbow caught everyone off guard when he was allowed to clock tepid fractions on the front end of the middle leg of the Triple Crown.
"All you can expect in the spring is ... they're either regressing, holding their own or getting better," Lukas said. "And I really feel — and I'm not just saying this — mine are getting better."
Oxbow's stablemate Will Take Charge, seventh in the Preakness, went out in the first set of the morning and was credited with a 6-furlong move in 1:15.80, throwing up splits of :12.80, :24.60, :37.40, :50.40. Jockey Jon Court, who guided the son of Unbridled's Song to his victories in the Smarty Jones and Grade II Rebel Stakes this season, was aboard for the move and will regain the mount for the Belmont Stakes after Mike Smith piloted the colt in the Preakness.
"He's maturing and he's definitely getting more nifty, knowing where his feet are," Lukas said. "I told (owner) Willis Horton that I think his best race could be the Belmont, without a doubt."
Lukas was overseeing his charges on no sleep having endured flight delays in his return to Louisville. But one of his former protégés, trainer Dallas Stewart, had enough energy for both of them after watching Golden Soul go through his first breeze since finishing a surprising second in the Kentucky Derby.
Stewart had held off on working Golden Soul after the colt exhibited a decline in his appetite last week. There appeared to be no shortage of energy for the son of Perfect Soul on Thursday as he covered 5 furlongs in 1:00.40, galloping out 6 furlongs in 1:13.20.
"I thought he worked great, he finished up good, switched leads real smooth, didn't seem to be blowing a ton," Stewart said. "We'll see how his energy is tomorrow. But I think we're good to go. His energy was great backing up. He was shaking his head, he was full of himself. It was everything I wanted to see this morning."
The field for the Belmont is still taking shape with Orb among the probables and trainer Todd Pletcher with five possible starters, including the filly Unlimited Budget.
Pletcher said during a national teleconference Thursday that jockey Rosie Napravnik was "very, very likely" to ride Unlimited Budget in the Belmont. Napravnik had previously been slated to ride Code West for Bob Baffert but Baffert is still unsure whether he is going to start the colt in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
When: Saturday, June 8
Where: Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 11/2 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)