BALTIMORE -- As he was led toward the threshold of the indoor saddling enclosure for the 138th Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby winner Orb stopped short, startling his handlers, and turned to observe the 3-year-olds who followed him down the stretch almost as if to warn of the futility of their missions.
The Pimlico crowd, huddled against a stiff, cold wind, cheered the Derby hero, who was a 3-5 favorite as he passed the grandstand, galloping strongly into the warm-up. The next time Orb passed, the swarm of 117,303 was in dumbstruck silence as he trailed Oxbow, who led from the break beneath 50-year-old former retiree Gary Stevens. Stevens rode on behalf of 77-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas and a reborn, long-dormant Kentucky legend, Calumet Farm, the dominant force in racing during the 1940s.
Racing is the domain of the unforeseen, sometimes -- as it was on Saturday -- the unimaginable, the strange and bizarre. The sound heard at Pimlico as Orb's bid for the second leg of the first Triple Crown in 35 years fizzled into the ether was the air rushing from the sport's tightly inflated balloon. Everyone in the racing business, every fan of the game, longs to see a successful sweep of the Triple Crown, and the anticipation that this colt might just be the cure for 35 years of frustration was palpable. It is possible to want something so badly that it actually acquires a taste, and it was that essence that excited the palate of the racing world in the 14 days between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. This is a game of disappointment, though.
Oxbow was sixth in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Arkansas Derby, runner-up in the Rebel Stakes in March and a stopping fourth in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans in February. Until he pulled off a numbing upset in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the most significant of his two wins in 10 starts was the La Comte Stakes in January. If Oxbow had credentials to win the Preakness, they were certainly not readily evident.
The Rocking Chair Preakness was essentially a function of pace, or lack of it. Old and slow won the day in the most stunning upset -- if long odds are the measure -- in the Preakness since Deputed Testamony won this race on a muddy track over an anemic field in 1983. Oxbow and Stevens laid out their hand in arthritic chapters; the first six furlongs went 1:13.26 and the final time for 1 3/16 miles was 1:57.54, which is now distinguished as the slowest Preakness win since Carry Back in 1961 -- and Oxbow was tiring in the face of Itsmyluckyday's late run.
"They gave me the first six furlongs free," said Stevens, who had not ridden a winner in any type of race for the last month until Saturday and is the first grandfather to ride the winner of a Triple Crown race. It was his third winning ride in the Preakness, and Oxbow gave Lukas his sixth replica of the Woodlawn Vase (the original stays safely in Maryland) and the first since Charismatic won this race in 1999. "I was smiling pretty good midway down the backstretch," Grandpa Stevens said.
Mylute was third and Orb fourth -- not a good fourth, but this was a horse on Saturday who had no help from the rider. Joel Rosario was as lost at Pimlico as he was brilliant at Churchill Downs a fortnight before. It was almost an inconceivable fourth -- too bad to be true.
Orb was raging against the bridle while under stern restraint from Rosario, who kept the Derby winner in traffic in the run down the backstretch. Rosario fought Orb when the colt appeared determined to run and surrendered position entering the stretch turn and never took Orb -- who has not failed in five straight wins leading up to the Preakness to deliver a late rally when outside horses -- to a clear path.
"Usually, he takes you there," Rosario said. "Today was not his day."
"I get paid to spoil dreams," the ever-gracious and decidedly jubilant Lukas said.
You take what the game gives you, and when you win the Preakness with a 2-for-10 colt like Oxbow, there is cause for celebration of a sudden and unanticipated windfall.
You also leave what the game takes. There will be more races tomorrow.
Shug McGaughey, who trains Orb and had been a study in confidence since the Derby, has also seen the unforeseen many times before Saturday. Perhaps this all seemed too perfect, square pegs fitting snugly into square holes; a champion training brilliantly, parting the wind. And then …
"I just think he got himself into a position where he wasn't comfortable," McGaughey said. "And then, with the pace scenario in front of him, they really weren't spread out. That probably affected him more than anything else. I thought the pace would be quicker. I thought they might speed it up a little bit, but they didn't. He was just never comfortable once he got down in there.
"I'm disappointed. I'll probably be more disappointed tomorrow. But I know the game. It's highs and lows; probably more lows than highs."
Many more lows than highs.