BALTIMORE – By 6:57 p.m. ET, a little more than half an hour after he was supposed to be on the way to history, Orb was led back to stall No. 40 in the Preakness barn. He wore a white blanket and stalked proudly into the green wooden structure as if he had won the Preakness by three lengths instead of his fourth-place stumble against winner Oxbow.
Orb shook his head. He sniffed the air. He pawed at the grass as he has every day of his life. He had no idea that the hopes and dreams of horse racing were riding on him. Nobody told him his loss meant there wouldn't be a Triple Crown winner for the 35th consecutive year. All that mattered was that a drizzly evening had a chill and someone had placed a blanket on his back.
"When you go back, Orb will be waiting for his rein and he won't think he did anything wrong," famed trainer Bob Baffert had said minutes before, back in the chaos of the Preakness result nobody expected.
A fading sport keeps lunging for its lifeline. The talk starts the moment the Kentucky Derby ends. A Triple Crown will change everything, racing people say. A Triple Crown will bring romance back to a sport that begs for slot machines to save its raceways. A Triple Crown will sell advertisements, build new narratives and give the country a horse to look fondly upon the way it once did for Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
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Orb felt like that horse. He felt special. He felt like a winner. And in Saturday's second leg of the Triple Crown he was supposed to thunder across the sandy track into a blaze of flashbulbs.
Until he didn't.
How could he understand how much the world needed him to win this Preakness?
At one point in the race – with the great hooves that had taken Orb to five straight victories failing to dig into the Pimlico track with gusto – his jockey, Joel Rosario, tried to get him to bite hard into his bridle. Orb didn't bite. That's when Rosario knew his horse wasn't going to be a champion on Saturday.
Later, Rosario shrugged. He had just stepped off Orb and was standing in the middle of the track, his face was covered with mud.
"That's why it's so hard to win the Triple Crown," he said.
Jockeys and trainers can only plead so hard. They can push their horses through practice runs and swat their sides with a riding crop, but the horse can only do what the horse can do. It doesn't grasp fame or legacy or the things that absorb humans. On Saturday, Rosario and trainer Shug McGaughey tried everything they could. Orb wouldn't comply.
He showed no signs of nerves or agitation. He walked without a misstep from the barn. Rosario mounted him without incident. He slipped into the gate as if it was something he had done so many times before. He gave no indication he wouldn't be the most memorable horse of the last 3 ½ decades. He just didn't win.
At the 3/8 mark, when Orb failed to break from the pack, McGaughey watched the big screen from the stands at Pimlico and wondered what was happening. Was Orb packed in too close to the rail? Did he not have enough of a burst? Was he done? Looking back, it was easy to see that Orb just wasn't ready to be spectacular.
"I don't think you saw the true horse today," McGaughey said.
But they don't run Triple Crown races on the days horses are their true selves. And on Saturday, Orb was slower than three other horses. And this meant the end of another Triple Crown dream.
McGaughey stood outside the Preakness barn on Saturday evening. He tried to sound upbeat. He talked about getting up to New York where he has a stable of horses to train. He talked about running Orb in the Belmont if for no other reason than to show the world how good his horse really is. But he was also disappointed. He could have been the great story of this Triple Crown season. As the personal trainer for the Phipps family, he doesn't get regular shots at the Triple Crown. He is a Hall of Fame trainer but Orb was his shot at great fame. Everyone would have known his name.
Instead the great story became Gary Stevens, the jockey of Oxbow, who won the Preakness. Stevens had retired in 2005, gone to television and only came back in January of this year. His return had not been a successful one. He lost confidence. He doubted his decision. Nobody expected something great from Stevens on Saturday afternoon.
Then there he was in the winner's circle. Orb's winner's circle.
How can you predict a sport that defies prediction?
McGaughey smiled as he stood outside the barn. He wanted the win on Saturday.
He wanted it bad. But without it, he nodded toward the stall where Orb would soon return. He joked that Orb wouldn't be happy to see him upon his return to the stable. He said he might shout: "What did you do wrong?" to the horse that was supposed to change the sport.
Of course he wouldn't. He would give Orb a hug and a pat on the head. Sometimes a horse just doesn't feel like being one of the greatest horses to ever live. Nobody understood that better than the man who trained him for brilliance.
"That's why I have three stents (in my heart), you are on top one day and then get an uppercut the next day," said Baffert, who came the closest to a recent Triple Crown with Real Quiet in 1998.
Yes there will be another Triple Crown winner he said.
"You're going to have to live longer, you know?" he said.
That's something the horse walking contentedly toward stall No. 40 in the Preakness barn will never grasp. Orb glanced at the small crowd gathered around him in the looming darkness on Saturday evening. The night was getting cold. But he had a blanket. He was warm.
And that was all that mattered on the day he didn't make a history everyone wanted from him.
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