Photo: NYRA, Adam Coglianese
On the day after the Kentucky Derby, I find myself agreeing with seemingly everybody in my excitement over Orb. He was the class of the Derby, there should be no doubt about that. He looked like the best horse in the flesh during Kentucky Derby week and he lived up to his appearance in spades by winning America’s most prestigious race in style. His 2 ½ length score under the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs was both deserving and authoritative. All this opens the door for the inevitable talk of a potential quest for the ever-elusive Triple Crown. While it happens on the first Sunday of every May, Orb’s marvelous coming to age over the last few months, combined with his relative place among the 2013 three-year-old crop, gives us all a much more realistic hope for two more big wins in a short period of time this year, as compared to most other years in recent memory. With the excitement over a potential Triple Crown firmly in place, it’s time to look ahead at what stands between Orb and immortality. Unlike most, the Preakness is not the race that scares me the most. Everyone saw his powerful rally in the Derby and many have and will jump to the conclusion that this rally will translate to an automatic victory in the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes in June, and therefore the shorter Preakness will be the real test. History shows us otherwise. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, only two horses, Swale in 1984 and Thunder Gulch in 2001, have completed the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes double. In the same timeframe, no less than 12 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. While it is true that a few Derby winners have skipped the Belmont after losing their chance to make history with a loss in the Preakness, this overwhelming six-to-one ratio would seem to clearly point out that the Belmont is the more difficult task for Derby winners rather than the Preakness. What is the cause for the is phenomena and will Orb fit in with the norm? The biggest reason is the obvious physical toll that the quest for a Triple Crown takes on our best three-year-olds and the monumental task their conditioners are asked to keep them at their very best over the entire series. And it is not just the five weeks of the Triple Crown that we are talking about. Every sophomore good enough to make the Derby is pointed for the singular race, and prepared to peak on Derby Day. Orb is a perfect example. He has never looked better than he does right now, and clearly trainer, Shug McGaughey did a fantastic job in preparing his charge for the Derby. Mission accomplished. Orb won the Kentucky Derby. Now, like those dozen horses before him, I expect Orb to carry over this excellent form to Baltimore in 13 days. Put another way, I consider it more than likely for Orb to be able to carry the same dominance he displayed at Churchill Downs directly to Pimlico over such a short timeframe. He is the best today, and he is likely to be best on May 18. And make no mistake, at 1 3/16 miles, the distance of the Preakness is anything but too short for Orb to score another big win. The amount of good Derby horses that will skip the Preakness to lay and wait for the Belmont, horses like Revolutionary, also play to Orb’s chances to annex the Middle Jewel. Then it will be on to Belmont, and that is where the test becomes more difficult, separating the great ones from the good ones. It’s difficult for horses to stay razor sharp over five, six, seven weeks or more. It’s difficult for stretch runners to be asked to kick in their powerful late runs after ten furlongs has already been run, and usually after slow early fractions seen in most Belmont Stakes. It’s difficult to not be a little tired for the race horses of today after such a demanding spring. I see Orb as a horse like Pleasant Colony and Alysheba. They were also powerful stretch runners who put it all together at the right time. Pleasant Colony and Alysheba were excellent horses that arrived to New York from Baltimore oh so very close to pulling off racing’s holy grail. For them, it was not to be. Can Orb do what they could not?
Yes America, we can get excited. Orb is a horse who could become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 35 years, but for all of the above reasons, I am expecting the Belmont, rather than the Preakness, to be the one that we all have to worry about.