The Kentucky Derby winner was in a playful mood the day before the Preakness, making faces for photographers between nibbles of grass outside his stall at Pimlico Race Course.
”I couldn’t be more pleased with the way he’s doing,” trainer Shug McGaughey said at his final pre-Preakness media briefing Friday morning. ”I can’t see any adversity. I would have to think it would take a pretty darn good horse to beat him if he goes over and runs his race.”
If he can defeat eight rivals in the 1 3-16-mile Preakness on Saturday, it would set up a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. Orb is the even-money favorite, and there’s a growing feeling that this 3-year-old bay colt may be special enough to give thoroughbred racing its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
”We’d sure love to have that opportunity,” a relaxed and confident-sounding McGaughey said. ”Probably the racing world would love to see it, too.”
Orb extended his winning streak to five with a thrilling victory in the Derby two weeks ago, when jockey Joel Rosario patiently guided the colt from 17th to first in the final half mile over a sloppy track.
In the Preakness, Orb will break from the No. 1 post, a spot that has seen only one winner – Tabasco Cat in 1994 – since 1961.
”Who knows how this race is going to go, but I don’t think it will be a problem,” Rosario said of the inside post. ”He’s a horse that comes from behind, so I really don’t think it will affect him. I’m just excited to go into this with a horse who has a chance to win.”
While rival trainers aren’t conceding the race, most agree Orb is the best of the bunch.
”Orb, he’s a freak. Right now, everybody should be rooting for Orb, except for the connections of the other horses in the race,” trainer Bob Baffert said – and he’s got a horse in the race, 12-1 choice Govenor Charlie. ”Anybody who’s not rooting for Orb, there’s something mentally wrong with them.”
Baffert has been there before. Three of his five Preakness winners had also won the Derby, but were unable to complete the Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont. He says the Preakness is the least stressful of the three races.
”There is absolutely no pressure, believe it or not because you’ve just won the Derby,” he said. ”You’re flying high and everybody’s excited. You don’t think about it. The next one (the Belmont) is the pressure.”
Getting to the next one may sound easy. It isn’t. Six of the past eight Derby winners did not win the Preakness, and McGaughey is well aware of the pitfalls.
”There are a lot of ways you can lose. Freaky things can happen,” he said. ”You hope he doesn’t get in any trouble, you hope he handles the track, you hope he handles the kickback of the dirt, you hope he handles the day.”
Among the challengers are Goldencents, who did not take to the slop at Churchill Downs and finished 17th after winning the Santa Anita Derby in April.
”Orb’s not like a one-race hit. All year long he’s been super impressive,” said Goldencents trainer Doug O’Neill, who won the Derby and Preakness last year with I’ll Have Another, only to scratch the colt the day before the Belmont because of a tendon injury. ”But we’ve seen Goldencents do some brilliant things in the afternoon. If he does, I think he can beat him.”
It might be Itsmyluckyday’s lucky day. He’s another highly regarded colt who did not handle the sloppy track and finished 15th in the Derby.
”He’s given me every sign that he’s ready for the war; he’s ready for the race; he’s ready for the battle,” trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., said. ”Let’s just get it on.”
Or it could be Departing, one of the three horses in the race who did not run in the Derby. Orb knows Departing well – the two were pals growing up at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., and ran around together in the same field. The gelding has won four of five starts, and comes into the Preakness off a win in the Illinois Derby.
And, of course, there’s D. Wayne Lukas, who has three of the nine entries in Oxbow, Will Take Charge and Titletown Five, a colt owned by Green Bay Packers greats Paul Hornung and Willie Davis. Lukas, like Baffert, has five Preakness wins, and his next victory in a Triple Crown race would give him a record 14 – one more than ”Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons.
Oxbow was sixth and Will Take Charge eighth in the Derby, while Titletown Five is a maiden winner who ran fourth in the Derby Trial.
”You have to be careful about that much emphasis on one race,” Lukas said of Orb’s Derby win. ”You change the surface, you shorten the race, you put him in the one-hole. These are things he’ll have to overcome. He’s the best horse. It’s his race to lose. But it only takes one horse to spoil your day.”
Weather could be a factor, too. The latest forecast for Saturday is calling for a 50 percent chance of rain with temperatures reaching the low 70s. Post time for the race on NBC is 6:20 p.m.
While Orb will take his shot at becoming the 34th horse with a chance at the Triple Crown – 11 have done it, 19 failed and three others did not run in the Belmont – several other historic milestones are in play. Rosie Napravnik will be aboard 5-1 second choice Mylute in an attempt to become the first female to the win the Preakness and Kevin Krigger, who rides Goldencents, looks to become the first black jockey to win since Willie Simms with Sly Fox in 1898.
Orb is owned by Ogden Mills ”Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney III, first cousins who have been breeding and racing their own horses for decades. McGaughey has been with the Phipps Stable for 28 years, and is one of the most respected trainers in the business.
”Shug always does right by his horses,” Baffert said. ”He represents what racing was like back in the day. And how cool would it be if the guy that finally gets (the Triple Crown), does it the old-school way?”
And, as McGaughey says: ”`We’re excited about giving him a whirl to see if we can get it done and go on to the next step.”