Most horses in the Kentucky Derby carry a good story along with them, although oftentimes you have to root around a little to find it.
With Oxbow, who will break from post position No. 2 on Saturday in the Run for the Roses, there is not one but three good stories riding on him. And they stand out in bold relief.
Owner Calumet Farm, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens are about as big as names get in the Sport of Kings, and all are hoping Oxbow can put them back on top in America's greatest horse race.
No single entity has had greater success in the Kentucky Derby than Calumet Farm, 762 pristine acres in the heart of the blue grass in Lexington, Ky. Since its inception in 1924, a record eight horses have won the Kentucky Derby under the Calumet banner, including the famed Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation.
Calumet also won a record seven Preakness Stakes, and it dates back to a time when powerful farms bred to race horses, not just sell them on the open marketplace like so many of the large breeding operations of Kentucky and elsewhere do today.
The last of Calumet's eight Derby winners, however, came in 1968, when Forward Pass won, and the history of the farm that followed is not pretty. Expertly chronicled by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach in her book "Wild Ride", Calumet spiraled into chaos following the death of heir Lucille Wright.
The farm's great racehorse and stallion Alydar's death was shrouded in suspicion and allowed the owners to collect $36.5 million in insurance. Eventually, Calumet collapsed into bankruptcy in 1991 under the mismanagement of J.T. Lundy, who wound up in prison, disgraced and convicted of bank fraud, conspiracy and bribery.
Calumet was in danger of being carved up but was rescued the following year when purchased by a Polish-born businessman named Henryk Richard de Kwiatkowski.
After 20 years but no great success, the farm was sold to an investment trust and leased to billionaire landowner Brad Kelley.
Kelley had been racing and breeding horses under the banner of Bluegrass Hall and finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby with Lukas last year with Optimizer. He purchased Oxbow in 2011 for $250,000, and while racing under the Calumet name, he runs in the Bluegrass Hall silks of black and gold, not the famous Calumet devil red and blue, which were sold.
Lukas, at 77, is in the midst of a Renaissance, with the support of owners like Kelley. The Hall of Famer, who revolutionized the sport by running multiple strings of horses simultaneously at various tracks, has run a record 45 entrants in the Kentucky Derby and won it four times between 1981 and 2012 with the filly Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996) and Charismatic (1999).
Only Ben Jones, the famed Calumet trainer, has more Derby winners than Lukas, with six from just 11 starters.
Three of those victories came with the Hall of Fame rider Stevens, who made a comeback four months ago at age 50. Stevens has ridden in the Derby 18 times and, along with the wins, has finished second twice and third once. He hasn't competed in the Run for the Roses since 2005.
Only Eddie Arcaro (with five), Bill Hartack (five) and Bill Shoemaker (four) have more Derby wins than Stevens. Shoe won his last Derby in 1986 aboard Ferdinand at age 56.
Together, this towering trio of Calumet, Lukas and Stevens has grand history behind it. But what of the future? It rests with Oxbow.
“I don’t feel any different than when I came in here at 50. There’s still the adrenaline rush," Lukas told The Associated Press. "There’s still the enthusiasm. The horse is the most important ingredient. You better have the horse and then some luck."
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