MAY 24, 2013

by Dick Powell

The good thing about last Saturday's Preakness Stakes is when the action leaves Maryland for its summer home at Colonial Downs, they can plant corn on the main track. Because after watching the races from Pimlico last Friday and Saturday, that's what I thought they should do with it.

I don't want to see return to the days of Tank's Prospect and Farma Way, who not only set a stakes record in the Pimlico Special for 1 3/16 miles but equaled the American record for the distance -- 1:52.40.

But when the nine furlongs of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes took 1:52.73, which was the second slowest since the race was switched back to its current nine-furlong distance, and the 1 3/16 miles of the Pimlico Special took 1:58.50, which was the slowest since 1958, clearly something is wrong.

For Preakness Day, there was a forecast of possible showers and it did not look like the main track was watered enough. Watch the Preakness and focus on the cloud of dust that was being kicked up by the horses and how deep the track was. It was no surprise that it took 1:57.54, the slowest since Carry Back in 1961, for this year's renewal.

Knowing how the track was on Friday, it still was surprising to me that the track was so slow on Saturday. If the showers had been more severe, it probably would have been a very different track. But what little rain that came was not enough to have an effect on the track and it was a situation that reminded me of Animal Kingdom's Kentucky Derby, when expected showers just missed the track and it wound up being deep and cuppy which favored horses running on the outside.

Oxbow was a possible contender for Saturday's Preakness based on the fact that he was the only horse in the Derby that raced up near the pace and held on some in the stretch run. But when you watched the preceding races, how was he going to handle conditions that seemed to be against his running style?

But a funny thing happened on the way to the winner's circle, the starting gate opened and Kevin Krigger decided to take back aboard Goldencents and let Gary Stevens clear the field aboard Oxbow. Expected pace pressure from Govenor Charlie never came and Julien Leparoux had Titletown Five farther back than expected.

So even on a deep, tiring track, here was Stevens loose on an uncontested lead, crawling through the first half in :48.60 and six furlongs in 1:13.26. He kept Oxbow well off the rail, and going up the backstretch Joel Rosario found himself racing in midpack aboard Derby winner and heavy favorite Orb. When he tried to surge forward, he wanted to go to the inside but Leparoux was making a middle move down there on Titletown Five and Orb had to back off.

At one point, Orb was shuffled back to seventh and at no point did it look like he was going to win. The inside/outside trip we all anticipated where Rosario would let the speed clear out, save ground on the first turn, then rally wide from way behind never happened because the speed did not clear out. He wound up racing down near the inside, which was the worst part of the track, and it wasn't just the rail but three or four of the inside paths.

I liked Departing and at one point around the far turn, he was about to go into second place with only Oxbow in front of him. Unfortunately, he was on the inside part of the track and you could see from his stride that he was having trouble grabbing the track and was not going to be a serious threat.

Oxbow turned for home with a clear advantage and opened the lead to three lengths with a furlong to go. Johnny Velazquez, who luckily had Itsmyluckyday on the outside from post 9, was making up some ground and Rosie Napravnik had My Lute in a drive from far back. Neither threatened Oxbow but they did have a wide margin over Orb, who re-rallied to get up for fourth.

Stevens almost leapt out of the saddle when Oxbow hit the finish line and screamed, "Are you kidding me?"

My sentiments exactly.

You can handicap track biases until the cows come home but there is nothing like lone speed. And uncontested lone speed is even more dangerous, no matter how slow the track might be.

At the age of 77, Wayne Lukas won his 14th Triple Crown race and has now passed the immortal Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for most wins in America's classic races. Combined with his 19 Breeders' Cup victories, most earned when the Breeders' Cup was a one-day event with only seven races, Wayne is the Jack Nicklaus of our sport.

By the way, in case anyone forgot, he is a member of the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame as well, with 23 champions including the legendary Dash for Cash. At one point, he trained the winners of 18 straight $100K stakes races in southern California over a three-year period in the 1970s.

At the age of 77, Lukas has had a resurgence in his career, employing the same methods that he always used. But he now has some serious money behind him with Brad Kelley's revived Calumet Farm. With the yearling sales coming up, I'm sure the guy in the cowboy hat will be busy bidding against everyone.

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