By Chris Korman The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE – Gary Stevens caught the water bottle tossed his way, took one swig and threw it back.
“He don’t want any?” a man asked, considering jockeys usually shower their horses, too.
Stevens shook his head from his perch atop Oxbow, the wire-to-wire winner of the 138th Preakness.
“Ain’t even tired,” he said.
Stevens, a 50-year-old grandfather who came out of a seven-year retirement at the beginning of the year, used a daring ride to clinch an anti-climatic second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.
His win gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 77, a 14th win in Triple Crown races, setting a new record. His first one also came at Preakness, in 1980 with Codex.
Asked if he appreciated this one more, Lukas said quickly, “Yes, yes, definitely. At 77, I do. Yes. The first one, I thought I was going to win quite a few more.”
Oxbow ran the mile-and-three-sixteenths in 1:57.54 and never faced a serious challenge. He won by 13/4 lengths. Going off with 15-1 odds, he paid $32.80 on a $2 dollar bet to win, $12 to place and $6.80 to show.
Itsmyluckyday was second ($7.80 and $5.00), and Mylute finished third ($5.20).
Heavy favorite Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, ended up being unable to overcome having to start along the rail. He began his move along the backstretch and briefly moved into third place, but jockey Joel Rosario could not swing out into open space.
“I just think he got himself in a position where he wasn’t real comfortable,” Orb’s trainer Shug McGaughey said. “And without the pace scenario in front of him, where they weren’t spread out a little more, that probably affected him more than anything.”
Orb was vying to become the 13th horse since 1978 to go to Belmont with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. Affirmed last achieved the feat in 1978.
“I get paid to spoil dreams,” said Lukas, whose last Preakness winner, Charismatic, had won the Derby but finished third in the Belmont.
Lukas had been tied for most wins in Triple Crown races with “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons, but he hadn’t won one since 2000. He never lost faith — or stopped entering his horses. His Will Take Charge finished seventh Saturday, while Titletown Five was ninth after moving ahead of Orb going into the second turn, which seemed to make the colt uncomfortable.
“The thing about it is, you get up every day and look for that one that you maybe can do something with,” Lukas said. “As long as we’ve got something to work with, we’re going to be around.”
Oxbow also returned Calumet Farm, the dominant racing outfit of the middle of last century, to the Triple Crown. The farm had produced eight Kentucky Derby winners from 1941 to 1968, including Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), as well as seven previous Preakness winners. It campaigned Alydar, Affirmed’s chief rival, but has declined since then and was nearly lost to development in the early 1990s.
It is now run by Brad Kelley, a billionaire who made his fortune in tobacco and is one of the top five landowners in the country, according to Forbes. He leases the 800-acre property from the Calumet Investment Group, which bought the farm for about $40 million last year. The members of the ownership group have not been named.
Kelly did not attend the race, and he was represented by his daughter, Erin, who declined to speak with reporters beside a brief television interview after the race.
“What a story this is,” Lukas said. “I’m happy for Gary and I’m just happy for Mr. Kelley. He’s trying to revitalize Calumet, and now Calument is back in a Classic race. That’s just very gratifying.”
Stevens won his third Preakness; he’s also won the other two legs of the Triple Crown three times each.
Though Lukas said he’d given Stevens no specific instructions except to react to the race in front of him, Oxbow’s two other wins had come after going to the lead early. In the Kentucky Derby, Stevens said Oxbow got closed off down the stretch but was “breathing fire” after crossing the finish line in sixth. That gave him confidence that Oxbow, a smallish bay colt bought as a yearling for $250,000, could handle the Preakness.
As Stevens came around the turn, he thought his horse would tense due to late-closing challengers — the horse usually knows before the rider — but instead he went easily over the finish line.
“I came into the stretch so loaded,” Stevens said. “I couldn’t believe that no one challenged me going into the far turn, but when no one did I said, ‘I think everybody’s in trouble right now.”
Aching knees forced Stevens into retirement in 2005, and he worked as a racing analyst, jockey agent, trainer and actor. Spurred on by the success of 47-year-old friend Mike Smith, he began training late last year and dropped 25 pounds to come back.
He teamed with Lukas — who saddled him for his first Triple Crown win, the 1988 Kentucky Derby — again as both faced questions about their fading careers. Lukas won the Belmont in 2000; Stevens won both the Preakness and Belmont in 2001.
Stevens found early success in California this year, but he won just three races in the highly competitive Keenland meet leading into the Kentucky Derby. At Churchill Downs, he was shut out.
“I thought maybe my business was lacking, maybe this was a mistake,” he said. “I’ve been questioning myself.”
But Lukas felt good about Oxbow’s chances and relayed that message to Stevens, who did not arrive in Baltimore until late in the week. Lukas told reporters, too, that he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think he could win.
Each morning, Lukas hopped on his pony and accompanied his horses to the track. That has been his life since the 1970s, when he left a career as a teacher and basketball coach to get into the horse racing business.
Divorced five times, he joked after the Preakness that it is impossible to hold a training licenses and marriage license at the same time.
“Dedicate yourself completely to the game, and if you work, it will probably come,” he said.
Lukas said he planned to take his horses back to Louisville on a van leaving Baltimore at 4:30 a.m. today, with only a few stops at Wendy’s planned along the way. Always tanned and appearing in crisply creased shirts and expensive boots, Lukas has said he has no plans of doing anything with his life but sticking to the routine he has kept for four decades.
As he walked away from Stevens — whose comeback is now unlikely to sag as it did in Kentucky — Lukas raised a hand and said he’d be in touch.
“I love you,” he said.
Stevens said the same thing back.