BALTIMORE — Amid the fawning over Orb’s Kentucky Derby victory and the feverish talk of a Triple Crown, Shug McGaughey, the colt’s sage trainer, cautioned on the eve of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, “There are a lot of ways to lose, as we all know.”
McGaughey proved prophetic.
With Orb, the odds-on favorite, never hitting his vaunted stride amid a thicket of contenders, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens seized an early lead aboard 15-to-1 contender Oxbow and was never seriously challenged, riding the bay colt to victory in the 138th Preakness Stakes.
Itsmyluckyday finished second, one and three-quarter lengths back, followed by Mylute, ridden by New Jersey native Rosie Napravnik, who was bidding to become the first female jockey to win the Preakness.
Oxbow’s victory over the 13 / 16-mile distance, in 1 minute 57.54 seconds, means that there won’t be a Triple Crown winner for a 35th consecutive year. No horse has swept the sport’s three classics — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — since Affirmed did so in 1978.
“I get paid to spoil dreams!” exulted Oxbow’s Hall of Fame trainer, Wayne Lukas, 77, who now boasts more Triple Crown race wins (14) than any trainer in history.
Oxbow’s romp in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown also added to the prodigious trophy case of the 50-year-old Stevens, who returned to competition this January after having retired in 2005.
“To win a Classic at 50 years old, after seven years of retirement — it doesn’t get any better than this,” said Stevens, who characterized himself as little more than a passenger aboard a largely misunderstood colt that was truly happiest, as Oxbow proved Saturday, when he was running freely and in front.
“All the stars were aligned. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
By all indications, Orb was the horse to beat. The bay colt with the beautiful, long stride flashed impressive closing speed in winning the Kentucky Derby by 21 / 2 lengths, surging from 17th to first over the final half mile.
The Derby was Orb’s fifth consecutive victory, and he showed no ill effects leading into the Preakness, settling easily in his Pimlico stall after a blistering half-mile workout Monday at Belmont Park.
The only knock against Orb was the fact that drew the No. 1 post. But with just nine starters in the Preakness (compared with the 19 in the Derby), it seemed unlikely that starting on the inside rail would pose a serious handicap. Surely jockey Joel Rosario could maneuver Orb as he wanted.
Orb broke well, but Oxbow seized the early lead, with Goldencents behind.
As the field headed toward the backstretch, Orb, running in the middle of the track, flanked by challengers on both sides, started losing ground.
Oxbow, meanwhile, extended his lead.
At the half-mile mark, Stevens was incredulous. Itsmyluckyday was behind him, having gone four-wide around the first turn, but didn’t appear to be gaining ground on the free-running colt underneath him. And though Stevens kept expecting Orb to challenge — particularly if Rosario managed to get him out wide, free of traffic — the Derby winner never did.
“When I hit the half-mile pole, I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Is this happening?’ ” Stevens recounted. “The race was over at that point. I just walked the dog to the half-mile pole.”
The early pace was markedly slower than it had been in the rain-drenched Derby, and it worked to Oxbow’s advantage.
He wasn’t an easy horse to train, Lukas explained. And Stevens conceded that he didn’t fully grasp how to ride Oxbow until after their sixth-place finish in the Derby. Though Oxbow was sapped by the Derby’s torrid early pace, he was among the few horses to keep fighting until the end, which proved to Stevens that he’d underestimated his horse’s heart and fight.
Once Oxbow got out front and got into a nice rhythm Saturday, Stevens focused on keeping his mount happy rather than telling him what to do.
Orb, by contrast, never appeared at ease in traffic.
“He was just never real comfortable once he got down in there,” McCaughey said. “I’m disappointed. I’ll probably be more disappointed tomorrow than I am today. I know this game. It is highs and lows; probably more lows than highs.”
Despite chilly skies and a brief mid-afternoon shower, a crowd of 117,203 turned out for the Preakness, the fourth largest in race history. The most well-attended sporting event in Maryland, the Preakness was held under tighter security this year in light of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
For the first time, fans, media and employees were electronically wanded as they entered the grounds. And the law enforcement staff, both visible and undercover, was increased roughly 50 percent, according to Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.
In the joyful aftermath, Lukas didn’t commit to running Oxbow in the June 8 Belmont Stakes, the most grueling leg of the Triple Crown, but gave every indication that he felt his horse had plenty left to give.
Stevens relished the prospect.
“Anybody that wants to come and tangle with him early on, bring it on,” Stevens said of Oxbow. “You’re going to get in trouble if you tangle with him.”