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The Third Classic

Orb is confirmed for the Belmont Stakes after a sharp work in company at Belmont on Sunday, joining Oxbow and what might be as many as many as 13 other starters in the final leg of the Triple Crown — neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness winner is scaring anyone away. Of the two, history suggests Oxbow is more likely to win — in the 21 times that the Derby and Preakness winners have met again in the Belmont, the Preakness winner has come out on top nine times, the Derby winner five, and the last time that happened was in 1984, when Swale redeemed himself after a historically bad Preakness loss (one that’s only been matched by Orb). Derby-Preakness winner exactas aren’t too common either, as Steven Crist points out in his discussion of Derby-Preakness winner rematches:

Only twice [since 1973] have the winners of the first two legs accounted for the Belmont exacta: Tabasco Cat-Go For Gin in 1994 (that exacta paid $19.20), and Hansel-Strike the Gold ($39.20) in 1991.

In recent years, the Belmont has been a rewarding race for longshot players, with bombs galore. The upcoming edition promises to keep the payouts up.

Orb and Swale

Post-Preakness, Marc Attenberg started a conversation on Twitter about the historical significance of Orb’s off-the-board finish by asking:

Last time a sub even-money Derby winner failed to hit the board in the Preakness? Not in 20 years or more? Anyone got the answer?

Swale was the answer. The 1984 Kentucky Derby winner, running second for much of the Preakness to pacesetter Fight Over (who held on for third), failed to kick in the stretch and finished seventh as the 4-5 favorite, beaten seven lengths by Gate Dancer (fifth in the Kentucky Derby*). Steven Crist, reporting for the New York Times, described Swale’s stunning defeat as:

the worst by any odds-on favorite in the history of the Preakness and the worst by any favorite since First Landing finished ninth in 1959.

No excuses were made for Swale, who would win the Belmont Stakes. “It was the consensus of most of us in the barn,” the colt’s groom Michael Klein wrote in his memoir, Track Conditions:

that Swale was running the race only because the Preakness was a jewel in the Crown, and to fulfill a theoretical obligation, he had to make a showing. The last jewel — the Belmont Stakes — was much more to his taste, both in terms of distance and quality of racing surface.

We’ll find out in a little less than three weeks, if Orb starts in the Belmont, whether the same can be said of him.

Below, Preakness winners and beaten Kentucky Derby winners, 1984-2013:

Preakness winners 1984-2013, where they finished in the Kentucky Derby, and their Preakness odds / Kentucky Derby winners, where they finished in the Preakness, and their Preakness odds / * = Preakness post-time favorite

Worth noting — Oxbow is the highest-priced Preakness winner of the past 30 years, confirming that the second leg of the Triple Crown hasn’t been the best race to look for longshots (the Belmont, though, is another matter).

*Fourth, actually, but the eccentric colt was disqualified and placed fifth for interference. It was the first DQ in Kentucky Derby history.

Don’t Be Disappointed

Oxbow spoiled nothing winning the Preakness, writes Bill Dwyre, because he put trainer D. Wayne Lukas back in the spotlight:

In this age of owners looking for quick prominence and quick return on investment, a Triple Crown winner offers a nice temporary buzz before disappearing into the breeding shed. Lukas coming back, with plenty left in the tank, should have his sport counting its lucky stars.

It has been a few years since Lukas was at the center — the last Triple Crown race he won was the 2000 Belmont, with Commendable.

Preakness Bow

If Orb’s Kentucky Derby victory was a win for the old school, then Oxbow’s Preakness Stakes upset was a win for the old timers.

“The experience thing is huge in these races,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 77, speaking of the Triple Crown series at Pimlico on Friday. “And [the Preakness] may be more of a jockey’s race than the other two.”

Gary Stevens, 50, proved his point. The Hall of Fame jockey, who came out of a seven-year retirement in January, let Oxbow settle in front and lead through an opening quarter of :23.94 and a half in :48.60 (chart).

At the half-mile pole, I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’

The race was over. Orb was on the inside, looking uncomfortable and too far off the pace. He finished fourth, nine lengths behind the winner. Itsmyluckyday and Mylute, on the outside, rallied for second and third.

Oxbow’s final time was 1:57.54, the slowest since Carry Back’s in 1961. The time might not be notable, but the win is for another reason — Oxbow gave Lukas his 14th score in a Triple Crown race, the most of any trainer in history.

I get paid to spoil dreams,” said Lukas.

I’m disappointed, but I know how the game works,” said Shug McGaughey. (Let’s pause for a moment to mourn Orb’s lost crown along with his trainer.)

As for the Belmont Stakes? The Preakness winner is likely. The Kentucky Derby winner is possible. And trainer Todd Pletcher is considering a filly or two.

5/19/13 Addendum: David Grening has a terrific bit of detail on how Stevens rode in this year’s Preakness: “Stevens said he tried the same move he made all those years ago with Winning Colors, attempting to bust the race open with three furlongs to go.” (Winning Colors going wire to wire in the 1988 Kentucky Derby was pretty great.) Oxbow earned a Beyer speed figure of 106.

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