Stevens won his third Preakness; he's also won the other two legs of the Triple Crown three times each.
Though Lukas said he'd given Stevens no specific instructions except to react to the race in front of him, Oxbow's two other wins had come after going to the lead early. In the Kentucky Derby, Stevens said Oxbow got closed off down the stretch but was “breathing fire” after crossing the finish line in sixth. That gave him confidence that Oxbow, a smallish bay colt bought as a yearling for $250,000, could handle the Preakness.
As Stevens came around the turn, he thought his horse would tense due to late-closing challengers — the horse usually knows before the rider — but instead he went easily over the finish line.
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“I came into the stretch so loaded,” Stevens said. “I couldn't believe that no one challenged me going into the far turn, but when no one did I said, ‘I think everybody's in trouble right now.”
Aching knees forced Stevens into retirement in 2005, and he worked as a racing analyst, jockey agent, trainer and actor. Spurred on by the success of 47-year-old friend Mike Smith, he began training late last year and dropped 25 pounds to come back.
He teamed with Lukas — who saddled him for his first Triple Crown win, the 1988 Kentucky Derby — again as both faced questions about their fading careers. Lukas won the Belmont in 2000; Stevens won both the Preakness and Belmont in 2001.
Stevens found early success in California this year, but he won only three races in the highly competitive Keenland meet leading into the Kentucky Derby. At Churchill Downs, he was shut out.
“I thought maybe my business was lacking, maybe this was a mistake,” he said. “I've been questioning myself.”
But Lukas felt good about Oxbow's chances and relayed that message to Stevens, who did not arrive in Baltimore until late in the week. Lukas told reporters, too, that he wouldn't be here if he didn't think he could win.
Each morning, Lukas hopped on his pony and accompanied his horses to the track. That has been his life since the 1970s, when he left a career as a teacher and basketball coach to get into the horse racing business.
Divorced five times, he joked after the Preakness that it is impossible to hold a training licenses and marriage license at the same time.
“Dedicate yourself completely to the game, and if you work, it will probably come,” he said.
Lukas said he planned to take his horses back to Louisville on a van leaving Baltimore at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, with only a few stops at Wendy's planned along the way. Always tanned and appearing in crisply creased shirts and expensive boots, Lukas has said he has no plans of doing anything with his life but sticking to the routine he has kept for four decades.
As he walked away from Stevens — whose comeback is now unlikely to sag as it did in Kentucky — Lukas raised a hand and said he'd be in touch.
“I love you,” he said.
Stevens said the same thing back.