Here's one of the reasons Wayne Lukas is the most successful trainer in the history of the sport: He's not afraid to run his horses.
Horse racing has become a sport dominated by the weak of heart. Some of the trainers deemed to be the best in the business pick their spots so carefully that they cringe in fear at the thought of running their horses back in two weeks. That's why only six of the 19 horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby did in the Preakness and why the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the first leg of the Triple Crown didn't compete Saturday. It's also about their winning percentages, which a lot of trainers protect obsessively. If the horse doesn't run its best on short rest and loses, the trainer's winning percentage will suffer.
These things don't seem to matter to Lukas. If the horse is healthy and has even the slightest chance, he's going to run him or her in a big race. In some ways, that has cost him. He came into the Preakness having won with only 13 percent of his starters this year, and that's a number that turns off a lot of major owners. Despite all of Lukas' past accomplishments, clients have not exactly been beating his door down lately.
Saturday in the Preakness, he got the last laugh. Oxbow was making his sixth start of the year, a huge number in this day and age, and the Preakness was his third start in five weeks. Then there were his other starters, Will Take Charge and Titletown Five. Both were coming back in three weeks or fewer, and neither, frankly, looked that good on paper. It's safe to say that Lukas is the only trainer in America who would have run all three in the Preakness. His disciple, Todd Pletcher, has three times as many good 3-year-olds in his barn, and none were in the race.
Is Oxbow the best Preakness winner ever? Far from it. But he won, and that's all that matters. He made owner Brad Kelley $600,000 and garnered the type of victory that will turn him into a worthwhile stallion prospect. If Lukas weren't Lukas, none of that would have ever happened.
This was the best day Lukas has had in a long time. In the race before the Preakness, he won the Dixie Stakes with 24-1 shot Skyring. Skyring was winless on the year, and a lot of trainers would have looked for an easier spot, somewhere they could be 6-5.
That Gary Stevens was the winning rider for Lukas in the Dixie and the Preakness makes this an even better story. Talk about old-school. Lukas is 77, and Stevens is 50 and just out of retirement after a lengthy absence. He last rode in the Preakness in 2005. Stevens sensed that the Preakness pace was not going to be fast, and he got Oxbow to the top in comfortable fractions of 23.4, 48.3 and 1:13.1. You're not supposed to be able to steal a Triple Crown race, especially against eight other top-class jockeys, but that's exactly what he did.
So here we go again, another year without a Triple Crown winner. That's because Orb just didn't have it. It's not exactly startling that he didn't win, but perhaps no one thought he would be so dull. He didn't have a great trip from the 1 Post, and some traffic problems on the backstretch might have cost him a length or two. But that didn't get him beat. Orb looked to be the model of consistency coming into the race, and Shug McGaughey's horses rarely underperform. His performance is a mystery.
While chalk players took a beating on the 7-10 favorite, those who still believe in Lukas had a prosperous day at the windows. Skyring paid $50.40, and Oxbow returned $32.80 for a $2 win bet.
Lukas may not be for everyone, and he definitely does things his way. Letting him train your horses means lots of losses with horses that seem to be in over their heads, and based on his winning percentage, 87 percent of your starters will be losers. But you'll also get days like Saturday at Pimlico, when a trainer who has never been afraid to take a chance came through once again.