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Submitted by John Piesen on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Time to give Oxbow, Lukas credit they deserve


During the course of the past several years I have voiced my share of criticism of D. Wayne Lukas’ approach to where he places the horses in his care and the frequency with which he runs some of them.  In 2012 I cringed every time I saw Optimizer entered in yet one more Derby prep race on dirt knowing that the horse had shown such great promise on the turf.  Finally, when the Triple Crown ended, Optimizer returned to his preferred surface and has done very well there for the past year.  For the foreseeable future the name Optimizer will be synonymous in my lexicon with “derby fever.”  That such an affliction can cloud the judgment of a man with so many Triple Crown wins to his credit is testimony to the virility of the strain that causes “the fever.”

Watching how Lukas was campaigning colts that had little impact on the Triple Crown in recent years, with Optimizer now serving as the cause celeb, I had acquired more than slight skepticism about the chances of a Lukas trainee making any kind of a run in the Derby, Preakness or Belmont.  Quite frankly, I entered 2013 needing a whole lot of convincing to keep from overlooking a Lukas-trained colt that otherwise fit the profile of a Derby contender.

Long ago, however, I promised myself to avoid letting my disdain for human connections blur my view of a promising or a high performing thoroughbred racehorses. The horses, after all, have no say in who breeds them, buys them, or trains them.  This past March I realized that I was being faced with a live version of the issue just described.  Wayne Lukas was training Oxbow, a son of Awesome Again, and the colt just kept on impressing me with each succeeding effort early this year.

Oxbow now has run in eight consecutive graded stakes races since mid-December of 2012.  That definitely is “old school” in a time when Todd Pletcher regularly has a dozen Derby contenders every year, and if one of them happens to prep three times prior to the first Saturday in May we consider them wound tight and most assuredly possessing a solid foundation for running farther than ever before in their short careers.  I’ve decided I cannot have it both ways – wishing and hoping for good horses to compete more frequently like they did once upon a time versus criticizing Coach Lukas for running his charges too often.

Oxbow started the year by winning the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds.  That victory hardly stirred a positive comment from the experts.  He was drawn far outside in his next two races, and they produced losses by a half-length and a neck.  Then Oxbow disappointed in the Arkansas Derby, the final prep for the first Saturday in May.  That loss occurred just as I published my first list of Derby contender rankings, and it influenced my thinking to the extent that I dropped him far down the list from where I had him previously.  That was how I saw him entering the Kentucky Derby.

On May 4 at Churchill Downs, Oxbow contested the suicidal pace set by Palace Malice.  Shortly after taking the lead at the top of the stretch that day he began to tire and faded to a sixth-place finish behind the closers who swept by him in the final quarter-mile.  After reviewing the outcome of the Derby I wrote in my Preakness picks that Oxbow was the only horse to contest the Derby pace and not come apart at the seams as he held on to finish a well beaten sixth behind Orb

After Oxbow won the Preakness and I cashed a nice win ticket on him, I listened to the post-race analyses that focused more on trying to figure out how and why Orb lost than it did on the fact Oxbow had won the second jewel of the Triple Crown.  Most of the East Coast writers in the sport opined that Oxbow had stolen the Preakness – a code suggesting that he somehow did not deserve to win because of the pace of the race.  On the other hand, the suicidal pace that set the Derby up for closers must have been okay in their books.

That took us up to the Belmont Stakes this past weekend.  I played against Oxbow, not because I do not like the horse, but because I talked myself into believing that he would be worn out from his seven-race campaign since December.  The pace in the Belmont through its opening fractions was the second fastest in the history of the race, second only to the day that Secretariat set the standard for pace and speed figures for all time.  Oxbow pressed that pace on Saturday and carried his lead after passing the tiring Freedom Child until the final sixteenth of a mile when he was overtaken by eventual winner Palace Malice.  The much-heralded Orb, running into the second fastest opening pace in Belmont history, could not catch Oxbow for second place.

At the end of the Triple Crown season it is fair to assess this as a competitive group of rather evenly matched 3-year-olds.  No super star horse emerged as had been suspected following Orb’s win in the Kentucky Derby.  I’ll clearly make the case, though, that no 3-year-old colt was more competitive in nor acquitted himself better than Oxbow.  He finished in front of Orb in two of the three races.  He won one jewel of the Triple Crown and finished a game second in a second leg.  Maybe all those races produced a foundation that paid off.  My hat is off to Oxbow – and, yes, to his trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

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