As Orb turned into the stretch in his gallop Friday morning at Pimlico, he changed leads on cue and stretched out nicely as he moved toward the finish line.
Trainer Shug McGaughey keeps liking what he’s seeing as the Kentucky Derby winner approaches the Preakness. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things are going,’’ McGaughey said.
McGaughey has been around racing long enough to know winning never is guaranteed.
“There’s a lot of ways you can lose, because things can happen.’’
That said, McGaughey also said, “It would take a pretty darn good horse to beat him.’’
Racing is all about timing.
Is a horse improving at the right time, reaching a peak on the right day?
“Moving forward’’ is what trainers like to say. Orb has been moving forward all year and is on a five-race winning streak, yet McGaughey has been saying all week that he thinks Orb might not have reached his peak.
Joel Rosario, Orb’s jockey, also sees an improving colt.
“Coming into this race and doing what he did, he really improved a lot, and he’s a different horse now.’’
Is Orb ready to take another step forward two weeks after running a mile and a quarter in the Derby? As usual at the Preakness, the short gap between the first two legs of the Triple Crown has been a frequent topic of discussion.
Five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Govenor Charlie for this Preakness, weighed in on the topic Friday.
“After you run a horse back in two weeks, there’s always that little question like, ‘Well, I hope he runs back well.’ Baffert said. “But everybody’s sort of in the same boat. Sometimes, running in the Derby, as long as they came out of it well, it’s sort of an advantage cause you come off a mile and a quarter. You’re shortening up. But you know what? The cream always rises to the top in the Preakness. Once in a while you might get the odd long shot that comes up and gets second or third. Usually, the best horse wins.’’
His Preakness winners back up his point.
Three of them – Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 – were Derby winners. Baffert’s other Preakness winners – Point Given in 2001 and Lookin At Lucky in 2010 – were beaten favorites in the Derby. All five of Baffert’s Preakness winners were 3-year-old champions, and Point Given was Horse of the Year.
Five-time Preakness winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is running Titletown Five, Oxbow and Will Take Charge in this race, has said it might present the most difficult obstacle to Orb in a bid for the Triple Crown. Baffert disagrees.
“It’s always the easiest, because they’re in the zone within two weeks,’’ Baffert said. “You can’t really mess them up in two weeks.’’
In recent years, the Preakness has been kind to Derby winners.
They won eight of the last 16 Preaknesses. Also, remember that Mine That Bird, the long-shot Derby winner in 2009, defeated all of his male rivals again in the Preakness. Unfortunately for him, the best 3-year-old that year was the filly Rachel Alexandra, who ran in the Preakness 15 days after winning the Kentucky Oaks in a runaway. Mine That Bird made a strong stretch run, but she held him off by a length.
Of course, people affiliated with Orb’s rivals are looking for signs that those horses are moving forward – and looking for reasons to think that Orb might not be.
“It always is tough,’’ Lukas said of the Preakness. “We’re coming off a mud race. A new configuration of track. A shorter race will not help (Orb) as much as maybe some of the others, including mine.’’
Rosie Napravnik, Mylute’s jockey, expressed respect for Orb but also said that Mylute, who finished 3 ¾ lengths behind him in the Derby, is moving in the right direction.
“You know what, (Orb) seems like a really good horse and one that’s moving forward as well, but Mylute, he’s definitely coming along, too. A little bit of a slow learner, but I think he’s really waking up and improving as a racehorse. He’s really getting a nice competitive drive, and he’s got a powerful move.’’
Napravnik said she’ll be aware of Orb’s position as the race unfolds but also said, “Orb’s not the only horse in the race.
“I think there ‘s going to be a couple other tough horses,’’ she said. “One horse I really thought looked great coming into the Derby was Itsmyluckyday, and, you know, I think it’s been said he just didn’t like the slop. .... I would look to see how he runs here. But also, I think Will Take Charge had kind of a troubled trip in the Derby. I think there’ll be a couple of other tough horses. So I’ll have my eye on Orb, like I said, he’s on the inside of me, which I like, but he’s definitely not the only horse in the race. He’s not the only one we have to beat.’’
A key to handicapping is trying to figure out which horses might be moving forward. There’s no way they all are moving that way, no matter what their people are saying. Also, even if a horse is improving, an unfavorable pace scenario can make it difficult for the horse to display the improvement.
To this handicapper, Departing is the most interesting horse besides Orb, a deserving favorite.
Departing romped in the Illinois Derby in his fifth start. Consider Orb’s fifth start – an allowance victory in January. It could be argued that once Departing started racing, he developed at a more rapid pace than Orb. Certainly, Departing is not nearly as accomplished as Orb, but who knows how much more Departing can improve? The Preakness will help answer the question.
Like Orb, Departing is a closer – an advantage if the pace is contested, a likely scenario.
Like Orb, Departing has passed the eye test in gallops at Pimlico. Both colts look sharp.
Mylute and Will Take Charge are two others who don’t need to be close to the pace and appear to be coming into this race the right way. Not that other horses aren’t, but handicapping involves choices.
So here’s the Preakness superfecta: Orb, Departing, Mylute, Will Take Charge.
So enjoy the race, and good luck with your picks.