05/19/2013 10:22AM

Preakness - The Day After

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What was so surprising about the outcome of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico was not the fact that it was Oxbow who engineered the 15-1 upset.

Going into the Preakness, there was a wide consensus  that once you got past odds-on favorite Orb, you could have thrown a blanket over the rest of the field, save for Titletown Five, who would have been 80-1 instead of 22-1 if real-world betting in big races wasn’t a thing of the past.

In addition, many pointed out beforehand that by finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby, beaten just under 10 lengths, Oxbow finished better than all the horses who were closest to the hot Derby pace. I try to always be very cognizant of such pace considerations, but I must admit, I thought this angle was a bit overblown. After all, Palace Malice, the horse who literally ran off early and set that sizzling Derby pace, was less than four lengths behind Oxbow at the finish of the Derby.

No, for me the two big surprises in the Preakness were how Oxbow pulled off his upset, and how empty Orb was.

There was a lot of talk before the Preakness about how obvious it was that the pace in the Preakness would be markedly different than it was in the Derby. But I didn’t hear anyone, including yours truly, predict that Oxbow would get completely loose on the lead like he did. It would have been one thing if Oxbow went out Saturday and ran fast early to secure his clear lead, but he didn’t. Oxbow’s Preakness pace was unremarkable – slower than what allowance/optional claimers went in the opener, on a par with what starter handicap horses posted in the second race, and faster only in the middle stages than entry-level allowance horses went in the finale (no comparisons can be drawn with the day’s other dirt route, the Allaire DuPont, because the pace of that race was a crawl).

The reason why Oxbow got so loose is because all of the other Preakness starters with some speed took back. Goldencents broke sharply, but readily conceded the lead to Oxbow in the first run past the stands. You could understand that, because Goldencents was trying to work out the sort of relaxed, outside pace-pressing trip that worked for him in the Santa Anita Derby. Goldencents got that trip. It just didn’t work for him Saturday, and he finished a tired fifth.

But where were Govenor Charlie and Titletown Five early? Govenor Charlie, who was 2 for 2 routing and who showed positional speed in both of those victories, was dragged back out of the gate to race in company with Will Take Charge and Mylute, noted deep closers. This change in tactics for Govenor Charlie didn’t work so well. He finished eighth, beaten 32 lengths.

As for Titletown Five, trainer D. Wayne Lukas said earlier in the week that he would like to see him four to five lengths off the early lead. This created a bit of a rumble, because Titletown Five, who has never won beyond seven furlongs, has sprint speed and looked as though he easily could have been in front early in the Preakness by five if he wanted. The notion that Titletown Five, even with the patient Julien Leparoux as his new rider, could have rated, and then kicked on late with the best Preakness finishers seemed ridiculous.

True to his word, though, Titletown Five was right where Lukas said he would be early. However, with the best of what little chance he had taken away from him, Titletown Five wound ninth and last, beaten over 47 lengths, eased late. But this is not the time to question Lukas’s strategy. After all, he trains Oxbow.

So the bottom line is, Oxbow got what amounted to a six furlong head start Saturday. You have to wonder how that can happen in any race, let alone a Triple Crown event.

On to Orb. I didn’t think his rail draw would have any impact on his Preakness chances because I thought against only eight opponents and with a long run to the first turn, he wouldn’t have any trouble working his way to the outside, which he has shown race after race is where he wants to be. But as it turned out, Orb’s inside draw was a factor. Amazingly, he was never able to get out in the clear, or even that far away from the inside, and that was not a good thing the way Pimlico’s main track was playing.

It was obvious on Friday at Pimlico that the inside on dirt was no place to be, and I believe that carried over into Saturday. I know some people thought that Pimlico’s main track was more even Saturday because we finally saw a couple of front-running winners, but I think the rail was still clearly the worst part of the track. Saturday’s first three dirt races were won by horses who rallied outside. Zee Bros won the Chick Land on the lead, but he was off the rail. Summer Applause won the DuPont after prompting a slow pace, and she was never close to the rail. Sage Valley won the Maryland Sprint racing four to five wide. Notably, runner up Hardened Wildcat was making a strong rally in that race, but he flattened out late as he drifted nearer the inside. And Oxbow was three to four wide throughout.

That Orb couldn’t get outside where he is more comfortable and wind up his run, well, that’s just tough luck. But that he raced predominantly on the worst part of the track is a legitimate excuse. More than anything, though, Orb really just didn’t show up. He’s not “The One,” but he is still a highly capable performer.

Look, better horses than Orb have lost big events at shorter prices. In the end, it is why they actually run these races.