Until Wednesday, Orb was rolling toward a total beatdown of the Preakness field. It was shaping up as a rout. The equine version of Tiger Woods vs. the field, circa 2000.
Now? The Kentucky Derby winner should still take the race and head to Belmont Park in search of the Triple Crown next month. But the task got a little harder.
They held the post-position draw Wednesday morning in Baltimore and Orb was given the dreaded No. 1 post. There were gasps in the breakfast crowd at Pimlico Race Course. It was the first bit of bad news the Orb camp has gotten since Nov. 10, 2012 – the last time the colt lost a race.
Everything had gone according to plan since then – actually even exceeding expectations. Now there is some adversity to deal with.
Drawing the No. 1 hole invites traffic problems. Rail to the left, other horses to the right – you can be pinned in and have nowhere to run.
Especially in the Derby. If you draw the rail in that race, you're a goner – there is far too much traffic and chaos in a 20-horse field to get a clean trip and an optimal shot to win. Breaking from post No. 16 two weeks ago, Orb was able to stay outside the mayhem – in what was actually a rather cleanly run race, by Derby standards.
But the Preakness is different. The No. 1 hole is a challenge, but not an engraved invitation to lose.
It’s just a nine-horse field this year, so the sheer volume of traffic is far less than at Churchill Downs. Orb trainer Shug McGaughey noted Pimlico's straighter run from the gate into the front stretch should make it easier to start from the No. 1 post. And it may help to have speed horses Goldencents and Titletown Five in posts 2 and 3; they can sprint to the front and theoretically allow Orb to tuck in behind them and find comfortable running room into the first turn.
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It's also important to remember that not only is the quantity of competition not what it was in Louisville, but neither is the quality. The horses that finished 2-4 in the Derby all are skipping this race. The only "new shooter" of note who skipped the Derby is Departing – a good horse but not one that has shown any inkling of greatness to date.
Orb has handled the inside post before. He broke from the No. 1 hole in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February, where he was guided to the outside and made a stirring rally on the turn and into the stretch to upset favored Violence.
The big difference between that race and this Preakness is that Orb will be the even-money favorite, not a 5-1 challenger. Everyone will be looking for the Derby winner, and opposing jockeys will be trying to make life as difficult as possible for red-hot rider Joel Rosario. If he wants to get outside – which is where Orb has done the majority of his running throughout his career, overcoming the natural disadvantage of taking the wider way home – others may try to prevent him from getting there.
Despite that, it will take something unusual for Orb to lose this race – a major traffic snafu or a brain-dead ride (not likely, given Rosario's roll) – because draw aside, the colt has been nothing short of sensational.
Trainer Bob Baffert, winner of three Kentucky Derbies and five Preaknesses, has a theory: If you have the best horse on Derby day, he should still be the best horse on Preakness day. Two weeks is too short a span for a horse to lose conditioning. If he was dead-fit on the first Saturday in May, he’ll be dead-fit on the third Saturday in May, too. That's why we've had so many horses – eight – win the first two legs of the Triple Crown in the past 16 years.
Orb showed his fitness with a jaw-dropping workout Monday at Belmont Park. He blasted through a four-furlong drill in 47.18 seconds – the kind of work normally associated with a California speed horse, not a McGaughey trainee.
And the work has not appeared to take anything out of Orb. By all reports he has been full of energy at the Pimlico stakes barn since shipping to Maryland.
After the workout at Belmont, this looked like a Baltimore beatdown in the making – something along the lines of Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones ('04) or Big Brown ('08) blowing away the field.
Then the post-position draw happened.
Orb's unlucky draw may have prevented a Preakness rout. But it shouldn't prevent him from winning and taking a shot at racing immortality in New York come June.
Related Preakness Stakes coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Simulation: Orb races past Preakness champions
• Rosie Napravnik chases history as female jockey at Preakness
• Kevin Krigger attempts to join short list of elite winners