Stevens, Lukas still have horse power

GENE SWEENEY, JR./BALTIMORE SUN STAFF/MCT Oxbow, ridden by Gary Stevens, won the Preakness on Saturday. Last year, Stevens was on NBC's race coverage team.
GENE SWEENEY, JR./BALTIMORE SUN STAFF/MCT Oxbow, ridden by Gary Stevens, won the Preakness on Saturday. Last year, Stevens was on NBC's race coverage team.
Posted: May 21, 2013

BALTIMORE - Gary Stevens had been retired for 7 years. It seemed like D. Wayne Lukas had been retired for even longer.

Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey, had been on the NBC broadcast team for many of the major races. Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer, was still in the big races, but always on the periphery, an afterthought, if he was considered at all.

Stevens, 50, came back in January because he missed the feeling of sitting on a horse's back. Lukas, 77, never left because he always loved the feeling of being around race horses every day.

The racing gods decided there would be no Triple Crown for the 35th consecutive year. They also decided to concoct a scenario that would put two men in the Preakness winner's circle 25 years after they each got their first Kentucky Derby with the brilliant filly Winning Colors.

It had been 33 years since Lukas won his first Preakness, 14 years since he had won his last. The trainer, who dominated the sport in the 1980s and 1990s, had been stuck on 13 Triple Crown race wins since 2000, tied for the most with "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons. The tie has been broken.

Oxbow got loose on the lead in Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico, controlled the race and was never in any danger. Lukas now has that Triple Crown record all to himself. And Stevens, who was starting to wonder about that comeback after a 40-race losing streak, became the oldest jockey to win the Preakness.

"The thing about it is you get up every day and look for that one that maybe can do something," Lukas said. "But as long as we've got something to work with, we're going to be around. I think that we're not through by a long way here. You have to have a passion for it. It's not a 9-to-5 job."

In fact, it is a 24-7 job, with far more heartache than euphoria. When he was changing the sport by sending horses all around the country to win significant races, Lukas could be alternately engaging and cantankerous, once famously calling some media members "cockroaches."

He really looked to be a "get-off-my-lawn" candidate, but, instead, has aged gracefully, content with what he has done, still believing in what he might do.

And when Lukas got a very rich new client a few years ago, he knew what to do. He went to the sales and bought horses for Brad Kelly, the mysterious tobacco man who does not come to the big races and was not at the Preakness.

Kelly got the rights to an old, legendary name, Calumet Farm, the horse assembly line that gave us Whirlaway, Citation, Tim Tam and so many other great ones. Oxbow does not race in the devil's red-and-blue silks, but it was "Calumet's" first TC win since the 1968 Preakness.

How races are run are at least as likely to determine outcomes as which horses are racing. That could not be better demonstrated than what went down in this year's Kentucky Derby and, 2 weeks later, in the Preakness.

In the Derby, what looked like a moderate pace turned into a scorcher, setting it up for late runners like Derby winner Orb. Oxbow had run a deceptively good sixth, as he was the only horse near the early pace that was still around at the eighth pole.

In the Preakness, with three serious speed horses, none made the front while Oxbow and Stevens cruised to the top in moderate fractions (23.94, 48.60, 1:13.26).

Stevens knew he had it won at the half-mile pole and he did, beating Itsmyluckyday by 1 3/4 lengths with Mylute just behind in third. Oxbow, just 2-for-10 lifetime and sent off at 15-1, ran the mile and 3/16ths in 1:57.54.

Orb beat Oxbow by nearly 10 lengths in the Derby and lost to him by 9 lengths in the Preakness. Circumstances changed and so did the result.

Orb, the 3-5 favorite, never looked comfortable, racing inside horses much of the way. When a horse is not comfortable, he will use energy before he should. When jockey Joel Rosario called on Orb to give him that run that had accounted for five consecutive wins, the colt simply did not have it and settled for a no-factor fourth.

"I'm disappointed," Orb's trainer Shug McGaughey said. "It was a great opportunity . . . This was quite a run for a couple of weeks . . . I just think he got himself in a position where he wasn't comfortable and then without the pace scenario in front of him . . . "

Stevens broke that losing streak in The Dixie, just before the Preakness when he won on a 24-1 shot. Skyring had not won since winning a stake on the 2012 Preakness card. Stevens put the colt on the lead and never looked back. Skyring is trained by Lukas.

The racing gods, indeed.

"In these classic races, you don't give up anything that they give you free and they gave me a free three-quarters of a mile," Stevens said.

There will be no Triple Crown attempt on June 8 at Belmont Park, but it appears as if we will get the Derby winner against the Preakness winner, the next best thing.

"You know me, I like to rack them up in the big events," Lukas said.

Lukas-trained horses have won a record $263 million in purses. His protégé Todd Pletcher, closing quickly with $242 million, is going to catch him soon, but not quite yet.

"I don't wake up every day trying to prove I can train a race horse anymore," Lukas said. "When you're younger, you keep trying to prove yourself in this industry . . . It's just a wonderful lifestyle. I mean, where in the hell can you get paid to ride out there? I ride on my saddle horse in beautiful weather 4 hours in the morning, go to the turf club, have lunch, deal with great people. I mean, is this a great country or what?"

Lukas was in the van with his horses on a 12-hour ride from Churchill Downs to Pimlico last week. He planned to leave at 4:30 a.m. Sunday for the return trip, with "two Wendy's stops" along the way. When he was asked if he could wait for the media to get up and chat on Sunday morning, he smiled and said: "Some of us in this great nation get up and get after it in the morning. Others sleep in."

Even when he wasn't winning anything and his career at the top level of the game appeared over, D. Wayne Lukas never slept in. He just kept trying to find his next big horse.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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