Saturday, May 18, 2013

Oxbow: An Old-School Preakness Victory

Orb’s old-school connections of Shug McGaughey, alongside the Phipps and Janney families, seemed to be the perfect team to end the 35-year drought that racing fans have heartbreakingly endured. Approaching the Preakness Stakes (GI), the Kentucky Derby (GI) victor created an abundance of anticipation among the racing world. Could he be the one?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no. Despite his old-school connections that seemed fit for the crown, it was not meant to be for Orb. But the 2013 Triple Crown, despite Orb’s loss in the Preakness, remains old-school through some of the most renowned names in the industry: Gary Stevens, D. Wayne Lukas, and Calumet Farm.

Oxbow was dismissed at 15-1 odds as nine Thoroughbreds loaded into the gate at Pimlico. All eyes were on gate one, where Orb stood beneath Joel Rosario. In the sixth gate stood a horse most had forgotten, allowing him to be sent off as the second-longest shot in the field.

A horse that caught my eye when breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs last fall for the brilliance he displayed then, Oxbow has caught many eyes along the Triple Crown trail this year, simply for the uniqueness of his coloring. He appears to be gray or roan, but gray horses must have a gray parent and both of Oxbow’s parents are bay, or dark bay/brown. Oxbow, registered a bay, is a misfit, and not just because of his coloring.

Photo by Brittlan Wall

His career began in rather unconventional fashion, despite the fact that he debuted at Saratoga, the land of promising juveniles. In this debut, Oxbow was pulled up and vanned off. His succeeding pair of starts resulted in lackluster performances, causing the $250,000 price he’d commanded at the 2011 Keeneland September Yearling Sale to be questioned. Was he really worth a quarter of a million dollars?

When Oxbow broke through with a victory in his fourth career start, he began to pave a path to answering that question with a yes. Dominating a maiden special weight beneath the Twin Spires, Oxbow would then enter stakes company and not look back.

After shipping west for the CashCall Futurity (GI), in which he finished fourth, Oxbow proved that he was a high-caliber racehorse with an authoritative 11 ½-length triumph in the LeComte Stakes, one of the first races on the Triple Crown trail. Racing enthusiasts lined up for a seat on the Oxbow bandwagon, only to abandon it as he accumulated a collection of three losses leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

In the Derby, Oxbow was forwardly placed and appeared ready to fight for victory at the top of the stretch. But he weakened late and finished sixth as Orb stormed home to a triumph that created large waves of excitement within the racing world.

Oxbow was forgotten as Orb prepared to continue his Triple Crown bid. Few noted his final work before the Preakness, in which Stevens – who was aboard for the breeze – gathered more confidence in his mount.

So now Oxbow stood in the starting gate, forgotten by many. But he did not know this. All he knew was that this was his job, his passion.

He emerged from the gate, only to be bumped by his stablemate, the powerfully-built Will Take Charge. But this did not prevent him from immediately pursuing the lead with Stevens aboard. Racing to the front as the field thundered past the grandstand for the first time in the two-turn event, Oxbow seized a clear, comfortable lead as he commanded the pace. Recording the initial quarter-mile in a steady 23.94, Oxbow was the lone speed as the field galloped around the clubhouse turn.

Oxbow leading the field past the stands for the first time
Photo by Brittlan Wall

Oxbow had become a dangerous competitor for his opponents. He was alone in the vanguard, galloping along easily as he posted moderate fractions. With his ears perked as the nine-horse charge raced down the backstretch, Oxbow was receiving a dream trip. His nearest rival was Goldencents, who offered very little pressure, rating two lengths behind Stevens’ mount.

Meanwhile, Orb was making an early move, growing closer to the leaders. Racing several paths away from the rail – which was the deepest part of the track –, Oxbow continued to lead in an easy manner, completing the first half-mile in 48.60. He’d slowed down, but remained the clear-cut leader. It was the perfect journey for a pacesetter.

As Orb lost ground, Oxbow continued to lead, maintaining the eager, content look upon his face as he led his rivals around the far turn. Beginning to lengthen his advantage on the field, people began to take notice. Orb was not firing, but Oxbow was digging deep, finding more left in his tank after the easy trip he’d experienced.

Oxbow was clearly enjoying what he was doing. Continuing to lead, he raced into the homestretch three lengths ahead of the others. Galloping in an authoritative manner, Oxbow charged home, prepared to repel any threats. Despite rallies from Itsmyluckyday and Mylute, Stevens called on every ounce of effort Oxbow had within and Oxbow responded with a stunning display of determination, holding firm to prevail by 1 ¾ lengths.

Spectators watched as Stevens stood in the irons, thrusting his fist in the air victoriously, shouting "Are you kidding me?!" This display of triumph was far from new. In fact it was old, something that, in November of 2005 seemed to be a thing of the past.

Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey, had announced his retirement in late 2005, hanging up his tack after a career that saw him capture a plethora of prestigious races, including eight Triple Crown races and just as many Breeders’ Cup races. He left the saddle and became a television anchor for companies like NBC, HRTV, and TVG, covering racing. He even played roles in the film Seabiscuit and the television series Luck. But in early January of this year, Stevens announced he was returning to racing. He quickly found success again, winning his first graded stakes race since announcing his comeback just over a month after returning to the races.

Meanwhile, D. Wayne Lukas – a Hall of Famer himself – was preparing a handful of newly-turned three-year-olds for the Triple Crown. Among them was Oxbow. Lukas had had grand success in Triple Crown races, but a victory in one of the three classics had eluded him since 2000. Since then, he’d brought a multitude of three-year-olds to the Triple Crown, only to be plagued by disappointment. He could only hope that 2013 would be the year in which he would stand within the winner’s circle of a Triple Crown race yet again.

In January, as Stevens’ comeback commenced, D. Wayne Lukas – a trainer for which Stevens had garnered three of his Triple Crown race wins – contacted the soon-to-be 50-year-old jockey. He informed him of the three-year-olds he was preparing for the Triple Crown, including a colt named Oxbow.
Oxbow and Gary Stevens, in Calumet Farm's silks
Photo by Brittlan Wall
The colt was owned by Calumet Farm, one of the most illustrious names in the racing industry. Any racing fan that has ever visited the heart of the Thoroughbred world – Lexington, Kentucky – is sure to have seen the picturesque white fences, the elegant white, red, and green barns, and the gentle, rolling hills of the historic farm. Once a powerhouse, Calumet had won seventeen Triple Crown races prior to 2013, including Triple Crown sweeps with Whirlaway and Citation. But a win in one of the spring classics had evaded the farm since 1968.

Calumet fell on hard times and, in 1992, was purchased by Henryk de Kwiatkowski for more than $17 million. Last May, the farm was again sold, this time for $36 million to Brad Kelley. The famous red and blue silks were replaced by Kelley’s black and gold colors, but the farm had been revitalized. It was ready to return to the battlefield of the Triple Crown and with Oxbow in its possession, it had the chance to again rejoice within the thrill of a Triple Crown race victory.

On May 18, 2013, each of these storied histories came together in the Preakness Stakes all thanks to Oxbow, the misfit. Dreams of a Triple Crown reached a crashing halt, but the pain of Orb’s loss was alleviated by the scene of these old-school connections rejoicing in the winner’s circle, ending their own Triple Crown droughts.

Stevens’ and Lukas’ first words to each other after the victory? “I love you.”

Gary Stevens celebrating his Preakness victory aboard Oxbow
Photo by Brittlan Wall

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