x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Belmont looks to be a tale of two horses

Orb and Oxbow battle for final leg of the Triple Crown in what may be a wet and muddy finale at Belmont Park.

Trainer D Wayne Lucas leads Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow, left, on the track for workouts at Belmont Park. Though a tropical storm is on its way to the area jockey Gary Stevens says that should not bother the horse, who won the Preakness on a soft, deep and slow track.
Trainer D Wayne Lucas leads Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow, left, on the track for workouts at Belmont Park. Though a tropical storm is on its way to the area jockey Gary Stevens says that should not bother the horse, who won the Preakness on a soft, deep and slow track.

The head-to-head scores stand at one apiece but the heavens have come down on the side of Orb in time for the Belmont Stakes, the final race of America's Triple Crown series at Belmont Park on Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby winner had Oxbow beaten 10 lengths, back in sixth, when winning at Churchill Downs in Louisville last month under the Dubai World Cup-winning jockey Joel Rosario.

However, Orb was fourth to Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago when the veteran jockey Gary Stevens rode his rivals to sleep from the front at Pimlico.

Orb's success in the first leg of the Triple Crown was achieved on a sloppy track, whereas Oxbow's comprehensive win was gained on a slow, deep surface.

Up to four inches of rain may have hit New York by post time thanks to the season's first tropical storm, but Stevens is unconcerned at whatever hits Belmont overnight.

"I don't really care how it comes up, because I know he handles the mud, and I know he'll handle a labouring racetrack, as it can be at Belmont Park, so I'm not really worried," the 50-year-old Hall Of Fame rider said.

Stevens returned to race riding in January after a seven-year hiatus. It is as if he has not been away.

He was denied any meaningful chance in Dubai on World Cup night in March when 11th on both Little Mike in the Dubai Duty Free and Dullahan in the world's richest race.

Since returning to America he has picked up where he left off, winning the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes on Skyring for D Wayne Lukas, Oxbow's trainer, as well as the Grade 1 Gamely Stakes at Hollywood Park on Tuesday. His pedigree over Belmont's mile-and-a-half distance in the racetrack's feature contest is difficult to beat, also.

Stevens has ridden in the Belmont Stakes nine times and has finished out of the money on only four occasions. Thunder Gulch gave him his first success in the race, in 1995, Victory Gallop followed three years later and Point Given handed him a third victory in 2001.

If Stevens is tailored to the task, it appears his mount is also.

"I don't think that I've ever ridden a horse in my career that is as focused on what his job is," said Stevens, who also rides Darley's Side Road in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap.

"His recovery rate is unbelievable as well. In the Preakness he pulled up full of energy and recovered back to his normal breathing rate before I even got back to the winners' circle, which was a first for me in the eight previous Classic wins that I'd had."

Neither Oxbow, nor Orb, has run 1.5 miles, and the step up in distance of two furlongs from the Derby could well see one of the 12 other runners improve past the pair.

Todd Pletcher, the Eclipse Award-wining trainer, runs five in the race with Revolutionary under Javier Castellano and Rosie Napravnik in the saddle aboard the filly Unlimited Budget his most likely challengers.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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