Jockey’s astute ride proved the answer for Oxbow
By J.J. Hysell
Amidst the despondency of Orb’s loss and the feel good tale of two teamed-up veterans with Oxbow, there existed an even more intriguing aspect of Saturday’s Preakness.
Sure, the fact that jockey Gary Stevens has come back at age 50 to win a Triple Crown race is quite impressive. It’s inspirational and also rare. Stevens wouldn’t have returned to the track if he didn’t feel he could give an optimal performance. He’s feeling better physically and, with time on his side, makes even better judgment calls now than he did as an evolving youngster.
Stevens, Lukas and Oxbow
Maybe that’s the reason why Stevens proved the holder of aces Saturday at Pimlico. Oxbow is a speedy, talented colt who often gives an admirable effort, but trainer D. Wayne Lukas has been open about his faults. Oxbow is like a toddler who wants to run full bore every day – but racehorses can’t do that. They have to maintain their energy on a balanced level. So Lukas, who usually doesn’t use jockeys to work horses – “it’s like giving them a Ferrari and telling them to go on the interstate, but don’t go over 40” he says – let Stevens and Oxbow, who were fifth in the Arkansas Derby in their first race together, continue to get acquainted during Kentucky Derby week. Stevens learned to harness Oxbow’s eagerness in the mornings and developed a chemistry with the colt.
That showed in the Kentucky Derby. Stevens noted the torrid pace and tried to keep Oxbow close, but it was too fast to grab the lead. Considering the swift early fractions, Oxbow’s sixth-place finish was rather admirable over the sloppy track.
The Preakness was a flip of the table. The main threat, Derby winner Orb, is a mid-pack to late closer who drew the rail. Speed appeared abundant in the form of Goldencents and Govenor Charlie.
Certainly Stevens studied his charge. Oxbow’s two previous wins were wire-to-wire romps. The record shows he prefers to be on the lead – but unlike many of his peers, he can carry his speed for quite a distance.
“I do know I’ll be up close if not on the lead,” Stevens announced when asked about strategy in a national teleconference on May 9.
Other challengers threatened pacesetter status, but it didn’t materialize. Stevens hustled Oxbow from the gate and got the jump on Goldencents for the quick lead.
That decision won the race.
Oxbow continued to cruise, unchallenged, through moderate fractions. They followed the son of Awesome Again around the circuit all the way to the finish line, changing order amongst each other but never threatening the freewheeling leader.
Orb, who struggled on the inside, started to pass horses in late stretch, but it was futile. Oxbow was gone.
“They gave me a free three-quarters of a mile today,” Stevens said. “I was smiling pretty good midway down the backside. I actually thought about Wayne up in the grandstand. I knew he would be looking at those fractions and be pleased with what he was seeing.
“When I saw Oxbow’s ears fluttering back and forth at the three-eighths pole, the thought of the 1988 Kentucky Derby (which Stevens won aboard Winning Colors) came back to me. I said kick from here, try to get some separation from the field.”
Lukas was likely pleased – and maybe not so surprised. On Friday, the Hall of Fame trainer expounded on the pre-race strategy of seasoning.
“The experience thing is huge in these races,” he said. “It really shows up in these big ones – pressure. These young guys they say, ‘Aw, it doesn’t bother me,’ but it bothers them. This may be more of a jockey’s race than the other two. I think they better have their heads screwed on here.”