After Orb scored his decisive victory in the Kentucky Derby and was hailed as a bright new star of racing, many handicappers had a reason for skepticism. They had seen this scenario before.
The Kentucky Derby often unfolds in a way that gives an advantage to horses rallying from far behind. The winner comes to Pimlico amid acclaim, but the Preakness Stakes isn’t run like the Derby and it doesn’t favor his style. Another Triple Crown bid is foiled, and skeptical bettors are rewarded.
The 138th Preakness, however, does not appear to offer a profitable opportunity to wager against the Derby winner. The second-, third- and fourth-place finishers at Churchill Downs will not be at Pimlico because they are awaiting the Belmont Stakes or other objectives. Just eight horses will challenge Orb, and it is difficult to make a solid case for any of them.
The Derby was profoundly affected by a single long shot, Palace Malice, who rocketed to the lead and set an extraordinarily fast pace over a sloppy track. The rivals who had chased him through a half-mile in 45.33 seconds all tired badly, allowing stretch-runners to dominate the race. Orb, Golden Soul, Revolutionary and Mylute were all 18 lengths or more behind the leader after a half-mile; they rallied to finish 1-2-3-5. The race was reminiscent of Derbies won by Giacomo (2005), Monarchos (2001) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), who all rallied from far behind after the leaders ran a sub-46-second opening half-mile. These Derby winners all lost the Preakness.
In view of the way the Derby was run, Normandy Invasion would have rated an excellent chance to beat Orb in Baltimore. He made a premature move to the lead entering the stretch before tiring to finish fourth, and surely would have improved with a better trip at Pimlico. But trainer Chad Brown decided against bringing his colt to the Preakness.
In his absence, there are two entrants who may have been compromised in the Derby and have previously shown the talent to win a race of this importance.
Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday brought excellent credentials to Churchill Downs. Goldencents was doomed by the Beyer Kiss of Death, and he, like Itsmyluckyday, had other obstacles to overcome. Both were chasing Palace Malice in the early stages of the race. They may have disliked the sloppy track — their trainers certainly think so. When Eddie Plesa was asked if the mud accounted for Itsmyluckyday’s 15th-place finish, he said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.” Goldencents’s trainer Doug O’Neill said the track was beyond muddy: “It was like peanut butter out there.”
All handicappers recognize that some horses dislike mud and that bad efforts on off tracks can often be disregarded. Yet it is not common for high-class horses to run as horribly as Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday because they don’t like a racing surface. Ten times since 1945, the Derby has been run on a track labeled sloppy, muddy or slow, and the form of the Derby held up remarkably well in the Preakness. Horses who were badly trounced never made a sudden turnaround to win on a fast track at Pimlico.
Itsmyluckyday and Goldencents barely put up a fight in the Derby. The former lost by 22 lengths, and the latter by nearly 50 after his jockey pulled him up in the stretch. Although I still believe that Goldencents’s best form is as good as Orb’s, it is hard to excuse performances so dismal.
One colt who did run creditably in defeat at Churchill was Oxbow; he chased the hot pace and briefly put his nose in front on the final turn before finishing sixth, a decent effort under the circumstances. If Oxbow had good prior form, he might be an interesting wager Saturday. But the main accomplishment of Wayne Lukas’s colt is a victory in a Grade III stakes; he has never indicated that he’s good enough to win at this level.
It is also hard to make a case that Mylute could turn the tables on Orb, or that new challengers Departing or Govenor Charlie could improve enough after winning lesser stakes races. I cannot bet any of these horses against Orb, and I would never take a short price on the favorite. But as a fan, I do have one rooting interest.
If neither Goldencents nor Itsmyluckyday recaptures his best form, Orb can win the Preakness by default. I don’t want to see him deliver a run-of-the-mill performance and generate the “superhorse” talk that invariably starts when a horse has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
If Orb is going to win, I want like to see him deliver a truly great effort. He could do so. His Derby victory, though it was accomplished under favorable circumstances, was certainly no fluke. And he may continue to improve. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, takes his time developing horses. In 1989, his great colt Easy Goer improved sharply from the Derby to the Preakness (which he lost by a nose) and then improved even more to win the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths. If Orb is on a similar trajectory, the sport may have plenty of excitement in the coming weeks.
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