D. Wayne Lukas may seem to the public an unlikely candidate to be one of the most hands-on trainers working in horse racing today. He shows up on television — like Saturday, when his horse Oxbow cruised to a win in the 138th Preakness — looking more like a grandfather enjoying an unbothered retirement in a place where the sun is barely hidden.
But the opposite is true.
Sunday morning he appeared at his barn a bit later than planned but still less than 12 hours after his horse fended off a listless field in an unexpectedly languorous middle leg of the Triple Crown.
Lukas loaded nine horses on trucks headed for his Louisville base, then prepared to accompany them on the 12-hour drive.
Now the winningest trainer in the history of the Triple Crown — Preakness was his 14th — he had touted Kentucky Derby winner Orb as the horse to beat.
Secretly, he thought Oxbow had the best chance at an upset.
"I was trying to be politically correct all week, but I thought he was the toughest horse," he said. "I thought if there was some adversity or something went wrong, he had the best chance to overcome."
Adversity, for Orb, came in two ways. Stuck on the inside after breaking from gate No. 1, jockey Joel Rosario never took him outside of the horses he needed to beat. That, and the lack of pace, meant the colt co-owned by Baltimore County resident Stuart Janney III never had a chance to close. The Triple Crown will have to wait at least another year. It has not been swept since 1978.
Orb trainer Shug McGaughey said he wouldn't be able to decipher what went wrong until he got back to his home track, Belmont, and took time to reflect.
His assessment of the race Sunday morning did not differ much from the one he offered in the frenzied moments after Orb had completed a listless and, to those who had watched him train all week, incomprehensible run.
"Having a deeper track down on the inside and not being able to get out didn't help," he said.
Oxbow went off at 15-1, making him the longest long shot to win since Deputed Testamony, the last Maryland horse to win the Preakness, went off with the same odds in 1983.
He rushed out to the front of a cautiously running pack and stayed there, quite casually. His final time of 1:57.54 was the slowest since 1961.
Second-place Itsmyluckyday and third-place Mylute challenged late, but never seriously.
A bewildered murmur overtook the Pimlico crowd as Oxbow crossed the line so breezily. Few had bet the colt. Many had hoped to see greatness out of a Derby winner that was said to be training even better going into this race.
Such is the nature of the chase for the Triple Crown, which annually lugs horse racing onto national television and into general-interest newspapers. Those who love the sport and fret over dwindling crowds see this span as their best chance to gain new fans, and having another three weeks of coverage about Orb running at a track just outside of New York City would have been a dream scenario.
A rubber match with the two champions surrounded by live new challengers is now the best hope.
"You have something when you have the Preakness and Derby winner," said Paul Campo, the New York Racing Association Vice President of Racing. "I don't know if [the casual fan] is completely off the bandwagon yet. Time will tell over the next couple days."
The Kentucky Derby winner has not won the Belmont since 1995, but McGaughey said he hoped to give Orb the chance. His employers, Janney and co-owner Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps have been influential in New York racing, and McGaughey foiled Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid in 1989 with Easy Goer. He'll evaluate Orb and make a decision in the next 10 days or so.
Golden Soul and Revolutionary, second and third in the Kentucky Derby but not present for Preakness, could be re-united with Orb and Oxbow at Belmont. Todd Pletcher, who trains Revolutionary, is considering entering several other horses, including two fillies.
Notes: Frank Stronach, who owns Pimlico parent company the Maryland Jockey Club, will profit from Saturday's race in another way. He owns Awesome Again, sire of Oxbow. … Two offspring of Awesome Again are up for auction at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale at the Timonium Fairgrounds Monday and Tuesday. Nine offspring of Malibu Moon, the sire of Orb who began his stud career at Country Life Farm in Maryland, will be up for sale. … At least one person picked Oxbow. Kevin Spacey, star of the Netflix series "House of Cards," tweeted a picture of his $50 dollar bet, saying he'd picked the horse because of the Henry Fonda film "The Oxbow Incident." "House of Cards" is filmed in Baltimore.
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