Anything can happen in horse racing, as Oxbow proved in winning the 2013 Preakness Stakes after starting the race with the second-longest odds among the nine starters at 15-1.
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens returned to competition after a seven-year retirement and managed to seize victory in the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans. By riding Orb to the winner's circle, Stevens dashed the Triple Crown dreams of Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who finished fourth.
Decorated trainer D. Wayne Lukas put it best after Oxbow assured there wouldn't be a Triple Crown champion to join the last one in Affirmed from 1978.
"I get paid to spoil dreams," said Lukas, per USA Today's Reid Cherner. "You can't mail it in. It's a different surface, a different time. You gotta line them up and run them."
Oxbow's wire-to-wire victory was a testament to how Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, is a sprinter's track. At 9.5 furlongs, it is the shortest trip on the Triple Crown schedule, so even though California Chrome is a 3-5 morning-line favorite for the 2014 Preakness, he isn't a sure bet to come through.
Part of what destroyed hopes for Orb last year was the fact that he started in the No. 1 post position, encountering too much traffic to start as Oxbow exploded from the starting gates in the sixth post. Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel referred to that in his analysis:
HorseRacingNation.com's Gary Quill noted recently how the sixth post has yielded the most winners in Preakness history:
Lukas won his sixth Preakness thanks to Stevens' brilliant ride aboard Oxbow, but it was Lukas' first such triumph since 1999. Lukas added more about how he felt throughout the quick race regarding Oxbow's chances, per the Star-Ledger's Tom Luicci:
Once he got to that cruising speed I felt they’d never catch him. [...] I knew if we could get to the lead, if we could get into that cruising speed and let it happen, I thought we’d be in good shape. When I saw (six furlongs) in 1:13-and-change (1:13.26) I was pretty confident.
The superstar combination of Lukas and Stevens, to go with the jockey's comeback story, created enough compelling theatre to offset the disappointment of Orb's failed Triple Crown bid.
Itsmyluckyday finished runner-up to Oxbow, and Mylute, with experienced Pimlico jockey Rosie Napravnik in the irons, placed third to round out those who finished in the money. No one could quite catch Oxbow, though, as he won easily by 1 3/4 lengths.
Although his winning time of 1:57:54 wasn't all that impressive, it was still enough for Oxbow to get the job done. Some criticism has been leveled at California Chrome for his relatively slow pace to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby, but he would take Oxbow's exact time as long as he crosses the finish first at the Preakness on Saturday.
Oxbow was thought to be more of a horse who would set the lead early and fade down the stretch. The most formidable competition California Chrome faces is Social Inclusion at 5-1. His acceleration and third-place finish at the Grade I Wood Memorial Stakes could really challenge the prohibitive favorite.
But as was the case approximately a year ago, having a sensational jockey, the right trainer and proper circumstances fall into place can lead to any dark horse claiming the top Preakness prize. It takes a lot of work just to get into the field at a Triple Crown race, so precluding any of the 10 entries in the 139th Preakness Stakes is unwise. Inflated odds for the favorite tends to cloud judgment, due to the fact that it's been decades since Affirmed last achieved the Triple Crown.
California Chrome will be an excellent story, but so would Bayern. Napravnik is getting the mount for him, and she could become the first female rider to win the Preakness at her home venue, aided by five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert.
The trick to sustaining the hype in horse racing is to have touching narratives. A Triple Crown hopeful is a singular, extraordinary possibility to fathom, but if California Chrome doesn't pull off a Preakness win, there should be a substantial shrinkage of hype ahead of the Belmont Stakes.