BALTIMORE — Chances are, the horse racing public will get it wrong again.
When Oxbow went wire-to-wire in Saturday's Preakness, again ruining a chance for a Triple Crown, it is likely to prompt hand-wringing among those who see it as the ultimate boost for a sport in need of one.
Like so many great hopes since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978, Orb didn't get it done. After an impressive Derby victory, he was widely hailed as Secretariat-like.
It was ever thus. Hope springs eternal at Triple Crown time, and bubbles burst just as fast.
Instead of sadness, racing ought to be dancing in the streets. Wayne Lukas won another Triple Crown race. And Gary Stevens was in the saddle.
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.
Celebrity best boosts a sport. Media embraces it, dotes on it. Horses don't talk, but Lukas sure does, and it's seldom boring. He is a Hall of Fame trainer with a wit to match. Leno's and Letterman's producers should be drooling, "SportsCenter" giddy. Anybody with a notebook or microphone cries tears of joy today.
An underrated Oxbow, racing beneath dark skies in chilly temperatures — and in front of the fourth-largest crowd in 138 years of Preakness history, 117,203 — was never challenged. His $32.80, $12 and $6.80 payout is a story. So is Orb's no-show fourth-place finish.
More so is Stevens, who is 50 and had retired from racing for seven years before returning to Santa Anita in January. He admitted he had started to wonder recently about that decision.
"It had been a month since I won my last race," he said.
Then he won the race prior to the Preakness, a $300,000 Grade II race, also for Lukas, with 24-1 shot Skyring.
This Preakness victory gave Lukas 14 Triple Crown victories, a record. His last one was with Commendable in the 2000 Belmont. He has won four Kentucky Derbies, six Preaknesses and four Belmonts. He has also won 19 Breeders' Cup races, most recently last year at Santa Anita.
But those are merely numbers, tangibles. The intangibles of a back-in-the-limelight Wayne Lukas are just what racing needs right now.
He is 77, going on 57. He looks like he hasn't aged a day in 20 years. He is at the barns every morning at 4:30, training and waiting for a media audience. There are a million stories in the naked city and Lukas can tell 900,000 of them.
There is the one about the pony he won for a friend a year ago in a poker game.
"I get four eights," he said. "That wins $2,000. The guy says, we can draw for double or nothing. I beat him there too, so I had $4,000. A lady wants to sell a pony, so she sits in my office. I ask her how much. She says $5,000. I had the four grand rolled up in a rubber band in my hand. I toss it in her lap, tell her it's $4,000 and she says OK."
Then there was the day Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby in 1999.
"I'm there with Bo Schembechler," Lukas said. "He asks me what to bet. I tell him Charismatic. He says why would he bet a horse going off at something like 35-1. I hand him some cash, he bets it, Charismatic wins and all hell breaks loose with interviews and stuff. Hours later, we're walking to the car and Bo says we gotta cash our ticket. I tell him we can do that Wednesday. He says how much. I say, $64,800."
Lukas changes jockeys frequently. "I tell them we are just dating, not married."
He loves fencing with reporters and so do they. He said he would head back to headquarters in Louisville, Ky., in a van with Oxbow at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. A reporter asked if he could delay that until 5:30 a.m.
"Some of us in this great nation get up and get after it in the morning," Lukas said. "Others sleep in."
Racing, lusting for a Triple Crown, found compelling stories elsewhere.
Stevens became the first grandfather to win a Triple Crown race. No record book needed. "I guarantee you I'm the first," he said.
Legendary Calumet Farm got back into the Triple Crown winners' circle for the first time since Forward Pass in the 1968 Preakness.
There was even another appearance of Mr. Photo Op.
Standing on the victory balcony for the post-race network TV show, among others, were Lukas, Stevens, track owner Frank Stronach, Bob Costas and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Play the game. Which one doesn't belong?
Done correctly, racing can cash in on its Renaissance Man. Barring something unforeseen, Lukas will be at the Belmont with Oxbow.
"You guys know me," he said. "I like to rack 'em up in the big races."
It won't be for a Triple Crown, but it sure will be fun.