BALTIMORE — It’s a wonderful story. Hooray for the horse racing’s Golden Boys. They look like they can go forever.
D. Wayne Lukas, 77, trained his 14th Triple Crown winner, but his first in 13 years. He wasn’t around to train against Citation. It only seems that way.
The guy who pulled Lukas into the winner’s circle at Pimlico Saturday was Gary Stevens. He’s a grandfather who recently turned 50. That’s like 77 in jockey years. Stevens rode Oxbow like a bandit, stealing the Preakness by leading every step of the way.
Like I said, it’s a wonderful story, a remarkable upset crafted by two Hall of Famers.
Except it’s not the story that horse racing needed. Not at all.
Not with the gap now 35 years and growing since racing celebrated its last Triple Crown winner. Not with the sporting world starting to embrace Orb after the colt made that thunderous move to win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Not when Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey, and jockey, Joel Rosario, were convinced their horse was primed to do something special.
“I don’t really think you saw the true horse today,” McGaughey said, wistfully. “He made a little bit of a run, and then he was done.”
McGaughey has never spoken 23 more stinging words. Orb left the starting gate as a 3-to-5 favorite. He reached the finish line fourth, nine puzzling lengths behind the winner. There was never a point in the race where the 117,203 people stuffed into Pimlico were convinced Orb was going to rally and win.
Now the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the series, becomes a footnote, a race that will scramble to sell tickets and grab the attention of the public.
Maybe Orb returns to his home track to prove that he can run the same way he ran at Churchill Downs. Maybe Lukas takes Oxbow to New York so the irrepressible trainer can add a fifth Belmont Stakes victory to his six wins in the Preakness and four in the Derby.
But that won’t fill the mammoth Belmont grandstand, that won’t put horse racing on the national news shows and that won’t have people cranking out all that publicity with stories about Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978), the last three horses that proved a Triple Crown can indeed be won.
Racing fans are truly wondering if it will ever happen again — and who can blame them? These days the first time something goes wrong the top contenders disappear. For Orb, at least two things went wrong Saturday:
The colt could not overcome his number one post position or a remarkably slow pace.
Orb looked uncomfortable when he was squeezed against the rail. In the Derby, Rosario moved the colt outside, keeping him out of trouble. In the Preakness, the colt appeared crowded and ultimately frustrated.
“We couldn’t get him out, and he probably wanted a little more clear shot than he had,” McGaughey said.
Then there was the pace. It was slow, slow, and slower — 23.94 for the first quarter-mile, 48.60 after a half-mile, and 1:13.26 for three-quarters. In the Derby, they ran the first three quarters more than two seconds faster, creating the dream scenario where Orb surged to the lead as the front-runners gasped.
If Rosario was masterful in keeping Orb away from traffic problems in the Derby, he badly miscalculated how plodding the Preakness pace was.
“I thought they were going really fast and he was really comfortable,” Rosario said.
Something was not right. Rosario tucked Orb near the rail all the way into the backstretch. He was sixth in the nine-horse field after a quarter-mile and then fifth after a half-mile. It was time to move.
“Orb’s starting to move,” trainer Bob Baffert said, while watching the Preakness on TV from the paddock.
McGaughey thought so too. Orb always had — at least in his last three races.
But not Saturday.
Instead of passing several horses, Orb stalled. Departing and Govenor Charlie passed him. He rallied over the final three-eighths to overtake three tiring horses — not that anybody noticed.
The Derby winner finished nearly seven lengths behind third-place Mylute. Itsmyluckyday was the runner-up. Orb had handled all three of those horses easily in the Derby.
McGaughey checked on his horse and jockey after the race. Then he looked like the most puzzled — and disappointed — guy at the track.
“I tried to focus on today the whole time,” McGaughey said. “But I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t think down the line a little bit because I did.
“I thought if we could get it done today and get to Belmont, we would really be comfortable there and probably really have a big chance.”
Everybody in racing did.