• Oxbow's Preakness pace wasn't soft

    POSTED May 24, 2013

    Most of the discussion in the aftermath of Oxbow's Preakness Stakes victory involved either explaining away why Orb lost (dead rail) or downplaying why Oxbow won (easy pace). Even if you agree that both played a factor in the outcome, the absolute nature with which some convey these details does a disservice to the science of handicapping--inexact as it can be.

    For Joel Cunningham's part on Triple Crown Insider's Preakness recap above, he notes that "Oxbow ran a very good race" before adding, "Orb didn't fire his best shot."

    I agree with both those statements, and if you liked Oxbow at all--even if you didn't think he was the most likely winner or even a more likely winner than Orb--then you had to be thrilled with the 15.4-to-1 win price.

    I liked what I saw from Oxbow in his Lecomte victory but was way off him by the Kentucky Derby following two hang jobs in the Risen Star and Rebel Stakes and a non effort in the Arkansas Derby.

    There were signs of life in the Kentucky Derby, though, as many pointed out that Oxbow ran best of those near the blistering pace, and a softer pace in the Preakness figured to benefit him with Gary Stevens retaining the mount.

    The key word there is "softer" which is a comparative term. Few would argue that the Preakness was a kinder pace than the Derby, but "softer" doesn't mean "soft." All three of Oxbow's wins have come in gate-to-wire fashion, and since his maiden win in his fourth career start, Oxbow is undefeated when making the lead early.

    All that is to say we have a good baseline of the pace Oxbow is capable of handling and winning since he had done it twice before. His E1 (start to first call) and E2 (start to second call) pace ratings on Brisnet.com were 94-94 in his maiden win and 84-92 in his LeComte win.

     Before Preakness, Oxbow had five previous races where at least one of those ratings (the E1 or E2) was 95+, and he lost all five of those races. In the Preakness, however, Oxbow popped a 96-105 en route to a victory in which he closed with a 114 rating. 

    I have a hard time calling Oxbow's Preakness pace "soft" or "easy" given that he ran faster than he had ever run before when winning yet this time still won. Plenty of credit for that is due to Racing Hall of Fame connections trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens, who pushed the envelope just enough to get the best out of Oxbow at all points of call (114 LP rating!). Lukas tipped his hand all week, saying that Titletown Five would absolutely NOT be on the lead, and now we know the full effect of Lukas's plan.

    How does this fit into how we handicap a race? I'm a broken record on this, but successful wagering is more about determining who can win (and the chances of that happening) than it is saying who will win. I dismissed Oxbow, but there was clearly a scenario in which he would win this race, and there was some chance of that happening. With the benefit of having seen it happening, his fair odds were probably more like 9-to-1 in the thought that what happened in the Preakness probably happens 10% of the time.

    There were some poor judgments on my part not to include that conclusion among my possible scenarios, but that's why Lukas and Stevens are in the Hall of Fame and I'm writing a blog about it.

    Anonymous said...

    You need to understand Oxbow in terms of what he wants - and is able - to do as a racehorse. When you think of Oxbow, you should think of Bodemeister because they are very similar.
    Both of these horses want to be out on the pace, alone, running free. Bodemeister was probably faster than Oxbow and was always capable of clearing his fields, and Baffert wasn't going to discourage that. I think Lukas didn't take the full measure of the Lecomte, knew the immense talent of his horse, and figured he could find rating positions to stalk and score. Oxbow was almost inexplicable in defeat because he would turn for home, take over and then get caught. Even when passed, though, he ran on. The horse has abundant energy reserves. As you point out here, his wins have been gate-to-wire. Why discourage that? Re-watching his races, it appears as if he gets lost mentally somewhere along the way and just drops focus and slides back into the pack. It's almost as if he is not controlling, he becomes a contented follower. You don't want that! It will be interesting to see if others would let him go in future races. And definitely interesting to see how he handles Freedom Child in the Belmont. Palace Malice might not be ding-donging again. His talent is there, too, but his true optimal style has not yet been discovered. Oxbow was very fortunate Kevin Krigger decided to take back, which was incredibly foolish on his part. I'm in agreement with you on the pace, and I was with Oxbow race after race after race, and he finally delivered for me and paid big.

    Anonymous said...

    -- JNS

    Anonymous said...

    Of the two I would pick Orb. On the top of his pedigree he has 5 Belmont winners, two of whom won the Triple Crown. He also has distance in the bottom of his pedigree. He didn't seem to fire in The Preakness but I think he will in the Belmont.

    The Belmont is pure distance. There won't be a lot of horses cluttering up the track and I would anticipate a very exciting final furlong.

    Of the others I would like Palace Malice.

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