When D. Wayne Lukas sends out Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Oxbow in the $1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 8, the Racing Hall of Fame trainer believes his competitors will be tangling with a much more mature horse.
Lukas, who has never been shy about starting horses in multiple Triple Crown races, thinks the experience can benefit horses' mental development. He believes Oxbow, who scored a front-running, 1 3/4-length victory in the Preakness May 18, is one of those horses.
"I think he did take things to another level in the Preakness. I'm going to be sending a horse over on Saturday who is a lot better mentally than he has ever been," Lukas said. "He's relaxing better. He might still be on the lead but he will be relaxed. You can win a lot of races with a horse who can do that."
Racing Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who guided Oxbow to the Preakness score, is excited to hear Lukas talk about the colt's progress, especially entering the Belmont with its unique 1 1/2-mile oval and challenging 1 1/2-mile distance.
"It's huge. I saw a completely different horse in the Preakness mentally than I saw in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) or in his works leading up to the Kentucky Derby," Stevens said. "First of all, he's one of the most intelligent horses I've ever ridden. He picks things up rather quickly and hearing that from Wayne—that I'm sitting on a horse that has moved forward mentally since the Preakness--that's huge for me to know that.
"I need a horse that is very cooperative going this distance and can adapt throughout the running of the race, and that's what it tells me."
Lukas will send out Calumet Farm's Oxbow, as well as Willis Horton's Will Take Charge, in an attempt to secure the 15th Triple Crown race victory and fifth Belmont Stakes win of his career. His previous Belmont winners are Commendable (2000), Editor's Note (1996), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Tabasco Cat (1994).
If Oxbow were to win the Belmont, he would be the fourth dual classic winner trained by Lukas joining Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, and Charismatic. Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Belmont while Charismatic captured the 1999 Derby and Preakness. With Oxbow, Lukas will try to replicate the 1994 Preakness-Belmont victories of Tabasco Cat.
Like Oxbow, Tabasco Cat didn't fare well in the slop in the 1994 Derby won by Go for Gin. The Storm Cat colt contended early but showed no punch late in the 1 1/4-mile race at Churchill Downs, finishing sixth. In this year's Derby, Oxbow challenged for the early lead through fast fractions and, like Tabasco Cat, finished sixth to winner Orb .
In the Preakness and the Belmont, both contested on fast tracks, Tabasco Cat would edge the Derby winner, taking the Preakness by three-quarters of a length and the Belmont by two lengths. Those victories would start a stretch of six straight Triple Crown race wins for Lukas, who swept the 1995 Triple Crown races with Thunder Gulch and Preakness winner Timber Country before securing the 1996 Derby with Grindstone.
Lukas said when he sends horses into multiple races in the series, the most important thing he tracks is their energy level. He said Oxbow, who defeated Orb in the Preakness and is scheduled to face the Derby winner in the Belmont, continues to excel in that area.
"His energy level is very good; I'm very pleased with that." Lukas said. "I think we're going to send a better-prepared horse, mentally, in the Belmont than we did in the Preakness. Whether he's a faster horse or a winning horse remains to be seen."
One of Lukas' two-time classic winners, Thunder Gulch, featured the team of Lukas and Stevens. The jockey said he sees similarities in Oxbow and Thunder Gulch.
"He reminds me so much of Thunder Gulch, what he did in the spring of 1995 in maturing right at the right time," Stevens said. "Like Thunder Gulch, Oxbow is mentally tough and physically tough. That's two common denominators these two have that are key."
Eighteen years later, the now veteran trainer and jockey will turn their attention to their latest fast-emerging 3-year-old.