Four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas is back on the trail, after his Oxbow romped by 11 1/2 lengths in Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on "Road to the Derby Kickoff Day" at Fair Grounds. The Bluegrass Hall colorbearer thus threw down the gauntlet for any others considering the subsequent two preps at the historic New Orleans track, the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 23 and the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 30.
"This horse has a beautiful stride and a high cruising speed," Lukas said. "When you watch the replay you see his ears are pricked and he's just in a cruising speed the whole way around there."
Oxbow was an impressive front-running maiden winner two starts back at Churchill Downs. But next time out in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park, he never made it to the front from his outside post and ended up a tiring fourth after a wide trip.
On Saturday, Oxbow broke from post 4, and had no difficulty taking command early with jockey Jon Court. The 9-2 third choice, Oxbow carved out fractions of :24 2/5 and :48 2/5. Heitai, who had been stalking in second, loomed up to engage the leader through six furlongs in 1:13 1/5. He issued a bold challenge at the top of the stretch, and even appeared to put his head in front for a stride or two.
But Oxbow shook him off in short order, stormed clear, and turned the race into a rout. Three lengths clear in midstretch, he rapidly widened his advantage en route to finishing one mile and 70 yards on the fast track in 1:43 1/5, returning $11.20, $6 and $4.60.
Oxbow's Lecomte heroics earned him 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. He now has a total of 11 points to his credit, having scored one with his fourth in the CashCall Futurity.
"I actually thought I'd be one-two-three," Court said, "but Wayne said don't be surprised if you find yourself on the lead. He just said to be relaxed and he wanted to see him happy with a smile on in the bit, and he can win this race and that's exactly how it turned out."
Lukas was in characteristically ebullient mood post-race.
"You guys (the media) didn't even know he was in the race, did you? If you had to make a living handicapping, you'd all starve to death," the Hall of Fame trainer said.
"When Jon gets back here tomorrow (to his Oaklawn Park base) I'm going to make him give half the mount money back because he didn't have to do anything. All he had to do is hang on.
"There is a certain amount of wisdom that he handled the surface well and shipped well, so that gives us another option. You like to see a horse handle the situation that you put him in. We took all the worst of it with shipping in yesterday and taking on your local guys all coming out of their own stalls and having works over the racetrack. So we took all of the worst of it today and still got along pretty good. Now we're a little tighter and in a little better shape if we come back to the Risen Star."
Golden Soul rallied from last for second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Fear the Kitten.
"We were between horses the whole way," jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. said of Golden Soul, "although he's one of the rare few that's able to handle being between horses the whole time.
"When I squeezed on him he picked it up nicely; the winner was just a little more seasoned and a little bit better horse today. We ran a nice second. He finished good and I think the distance will help him.
"The further they go the better he'll get," Hernandez added. "And it's only his third start, so to step up like he did in the Lecomte, there's no denying he's a good horse."
Trainer Dallas Stewart was likewise pleased with Golden Soul's effort, and indicated that he would likely advance to the Risen Star.
"I thought he finished great," Stewart said. "It was a slow pace and he finished well. We were second today but we'll take that.
"As long as he comes out of this in good shape, that's the way we're headed (the Risen Star)."
Ive Struck a Nerve reported home fourth, followed by Malibu High; Circle Unbroken; a weary Heitai, who began wandering out in the stretch; 8-5 favorite Avie's Quality, who never looked happy in his first try on dirt; and Hawaakom.
Oxbow's resume now reads 6-2-0-1, $217,500. The $250,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase made an inauspicious debut at Saratoga last August, where he didn't stride out well in the early going, was pulled up, and vanned off the track.
Next seen on October 18 at Keeneland, Oxbow flashed early speed before fading to a distant fourth. He wheeled back just 13 days later at Churchill and turned in a similar race, setting a contested pace only to tire to third, beaten eight lengths by the now-sidelined Gulfport. Oxbow put it all together in his fourth attempt on November 25, leading throughout and drawing off by 4 3/4 lengths.
"Where he goes from here is up to Brad Kelley (of Bluegrass Hall) and Wayne Lukas, of course," Court said, "but I did see this horse progress from the first time I got to ride him (in his loss at Keeneland).
"In fact, the day he won I told Joe Rocco Jr. (the winning rider) that this horse has really improved a lot and I wish I could be on his back. I said, 'You are going to really like him,' and he went on to win. As I mentioned, the progression he's made in his training and in his races shows that he's continued to pursue the prestigious levels, so we'll see where he goes from here."
Bred by Colts Neck Stables in Kentucky, Oxbow is a close relative of Paynter, last year's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational hero who riveted the nation by beating life-threatening colitis and laminitis. Supported by the votes of his many fans, Paynter earned both the Vox Populi Award and the NTRA Moment of the Year, for his protracted battle.
Both are by Awesome Again and out of full sisters to Hall of Famer Tiznow, the only two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. Paynter is out of the mare Tizso, while Oxbow is out of her full sister Tizamazing. The mares are likewise full sisters to multiple Grade 2 star Budroyale, Grade 3 scorer Tizdubai and Grade 2-placed stakes winner Tizbud.
Tizamazing has also produced Grade 3-placed stakes winner Awesome Patriot, a full brother to Oxbow.