Orb was covered with gray dirt. So was his jockey, John Velazquez.
That’s what happens when horses are closer to last place than first. They get covered in whatever gets kicked up by the powerful, churning legs of the thoroughbreds racing in front of them.
Orb clearly doesn’t mind. For the third straight outing, he came from way back in the pack to win — his latest rally being on Saturday, when he took advantage of some blistering early fractions to catch and then hold off heavily favored Violence by half a length to win the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
And after winning this prep for 3-year-olds, Orb has gone from a horse that was beaten by a combined 31 lengths in his first three starts to possibly a Kentucky Derby contender.
”Don’t worry about the Kentucky Derby,” said Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey. ”I am worried about it. I’ve been worried about it since I started rubbin’ horses in 1971 or ‘2.”
McGaughey has never won the Run for the Roses. Maybe Orb will change that.
Under the new points system that could come into play for qualifying for the Derby, Orb is off to a flying start. This weekend marked the first time certain prep races — the Fountain of Youth being among them — was awarding as many as 50 points for a win. The available number of points will keep rising until the Derby, but it’s hard to envision a horse with 50 points not getting into the field.
McGaughey watched Saturday’s race on a television at Gulfstream, and Orb was so far back in the pack that it — literally — wasn’t even in the picture. But when the frontrunners, who covered the first half-mile in a particularly speedy 45.45 seconds, began to slow down, McGaughey figured Orb had a shot.
Velazquez asked Orb to take off, and with one sweeping move he ran down the leaders, then dug deep to hold off a second challenge from Violence, who lost for the first time in his four career starts.
”When he made the lead, he kind of idles a little bit,” said Todd Pletcher, Violence’s trainer. ”His last race, he kind of did the same thing where he waited on horses. You could see Orb coming with that long, sustained run and I think Violence was able to dig in pretty well, actually, in the stretch. We just came out on the short end.”
If there was one edge Orb had over Violence — who was sent off as the 3-5 favorite — it was that he had raced and won already once this year, at Gulfstream four weeks ago. Violence was 3 for 3 lifetime, winning his maiden race at Saratoga in August, the Grade 2 Nashua at Aqueduct in November and then the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December.
Maybe Violence had some rust to shake off.
”He responded well every time I asked him to move,” said Violence’s jockey, Javier Castellano. ”He ran huge off the layoff, and I think this puts him in a great place.”
Orb finished 1-1/16 miles in 1 minute, 42.24 seconds on a fast track and returned $12.80 for a $2 win bet. Speak Logistics was third.
Velazquez said he didn’t mind Orb being so far off the lead in the early going.
”He was going along nice and smooth,” said Velazquez, who was aboard Orb for the first time. ”I actually had to ride him pretty hard from the half-mile to the quarter pole to keep position, and I hoped it wouldn’t take anything out of him for the stretch. But it actually worked out great.”
That it did. Once Orb passed the favorite, Violence appeared to start cutting back into the lead. But Orb held on, becoming the one who was kicking dirt onto the others instead of having it sprayed his way.
”I think Violence made him that much more competitive,” McGaughey said.
In other stakes races on Saturday’s Gulfstream card, Data Link — also trained by McGaughey — beat a strong field of older horses to win the Grade 3 Canadian Turf, and Live Lively won the Grade 2 Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies.