BALTIMORE — They all said it would take something of an extraordinary nature to prevent a most exceptional Kentucky Derby winner from marching right through Pimlico Race Course toward a potential date with history.
To a man, the connections of the eight horses facing the preordained monster named Orb in the 138th Preakness Stakes conceded if what everyone saw two weeks ago held true Saturday evening, even an over-the-top performance by one of their own might not be enough to overtake him.
Sure enough, there was one contender in the field who had three of the all-time greats in their respective professions fueling his fire. Under their care and guidance, a little pit bull of a runner re-established the superiority of his own people with his overwhelming tenacity.
In about the last 400 yards of the Preakness Stakes, the reality that the Thoroughbred racing world would go a 35th year without a Triple Crown winner set in for the 117,203 in attendance at Pimlico Race Course and the millions holding their breath from afar.
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Owned by historic Calumet Farm, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by another Hall of Fame legend in Gary Stevens, the diminutive Oxbow did the seemingly impossible when he won the 13⁄16-mile classic by 13/4 lengths over Itsmyluckyday in a gate-to-wire stunner while heralded Orb struggled home fourth.
Given the effortless way Orb won the Kentucky Derby by 21/2 lengths on May 4 and the remarkable nature in which the son of Malibu Moon had trained in the aftermath, the overwhelming sense was that the Preakness would be mere formality for the Shug McGaughey trainee.
No one has ever been more dangerous in the history of Triple Crown races, however, than the legend that is Lukas. At 77 years of age, the game-shaping conditioner earned his record-tying sixth career win in the Preakness and record-breaking 14th win in a Triple Crown race, eclipsing the previous mark of 13 he shared with "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons:
"I shared that record with a very special man in this industry and ... if I never broke it, I was proud of that," said Lukas, who earned his first win in a Triple Crown race since saddling Commendable to victory in the 2000 Belmont Stakes and gave Calumet Farm — now owned by Brad Kelley — its first Triple Crown triumph since Forward Pass took the 1968 Preakness. "As long as we've got something to work with, we're going to be around. I think we're not through by a long way here.
"What a story this is. It's been a while but it never gets old."
At age 50, Stevens is the oldest jockey to win the Preakness. And the only reason he was celebrating his third Preakness win and ninth victory in a Triple Crown race was his desire to prove he still has something to give.
Stevens ended a seven-year retirement and returned to riding this January, citing his big-race aspirations among his many reasons. In what was his third time aboard Oxbow, Stevens was able to get the headstrong son of Awesome Again to listen to his deft ways, cruising through fractions of :23.94 and :48.60 up front while 3-to-5 favorite Orb struggled down inside after breaking from post position No. 1.
"This is super, super sweet and it happened for the right guy," said Stevens, who earned his first Triple Crown win when he guided Lukas-trainee Winning Colors to victory in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. "I actually thought about Wayne up in the grandstands. I knew he had to be looking at those fractions and pleased with what he was seeing. When I saw Oxbow's ears fluttering ... at the three-eighths pole, I thought of the 1988 Kentucky Derby."
Though Oxbow ran a gritty sixth in the Kentucky Derby after being close to a wicked pace that day, the horse Lukas deemed one of the toughest he has trained in terms of mettle was dismissed at odds of 15-to-1, having lost four straight since winning the Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January.
As Oxbow was cantering on the front end with Goldencents rating second, Orb sat sixth, then fifth under Joel Rosario. Unlike his sweeping move in the Derby, Rosario failed to get a major response when he asked the multiple Grade I winner to close in on the leaders.
"The pace was slower than I anticipated. I still thought we would close, but it just wasn't his day," McGaughey said. "He was just never real comfortable once he got down in there.
"That's why they run these races is to see who is going to win. Obviously I am disappointed. I don't think you saw our true horse today, but my hat's off to Oxbow."
Itsmyluckyday, 15th in the Kentucky Derby, gained a measure of redemption with his runner-up effort while Mylute, fifth in the Derby, was 63/4 lengths clear of Orb in third. Will Take Charge and Titletown Five, the two other Lukas trainees in the race, were seventh and ninth, respectively.
Final time for the distance was 1:57.54 over a fast track.
Like many, Stevens was bracing to feel the impact of Orb's closing kick coming to him in the lane.
"I couldn't believe no one was challenging me going into the far turn," he said. "But when no one did, I said 'I think everybody's in trouble right now'."
Instead, the Kentucky Derby winner will likely have to wait until the Belmont Stakes on June 8 if he wants to get his own crack at thwarting a storyline for the ages.
"At this point in my career I'm very comfortable where we're at," Lukas said. "I don't wake up every day trying to prove I can still train a horse anymore. What a roller-coaster game. I mean, the nature of our game."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.
6 Oxbow $32.80 $12.00 $6.80
9 Itsmyluckyday $7.80 $5.00
5 Mylute $5.20
Rest of field in order of finish: Orb, Goldencents, Departing, Will Take Charge, Govenor Charlie, Titletown Five