Even when a Kentucky Derby winner is out of sight, he's never out of mind. So where did Orb go for the summer? Not to Saratoga, but to the Fair Hill training center way out in the Maryland countryside. After watching him flop in the Preakness (fourth) and Belmont (third), trainer Shug McGaughey decided Orb needed a little down time away from the racetrack.
Although many thought Orb entered a four-legged witness protection program, he was just taking a break before gearing up for Saturday's 144th Travers Stakes. He hasn't run since June 8, and if you're into trends, in the past 20 years, only Sea Hero (1993), Thunder Gulch (1995) and Street Sense (2007) hit the Derby-Travers double.
"I don't think fitness will be a problem," McGaughey said. "I think he's mentally very sharp now. He got a lot stronger and more mature, and I think our little experiment at Fair Hill really worked to his advantage. I think we've got a much better horse than we had earlier in the year."
Orb must regain his Derby form to outrun Haskell winner Verrazano, the 2-1 favorite in a field of nine, and Belmont and Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice (5-2). As usual, Todd Pletcher is dominating Saratoga, and his two stars have eclipsed Orb (4-1 third choice) atop the 3-year-old division.
"Both of them are going to be really tough," McGaughey said. "We've gotten beat twice, so that shakes your confidence a little bit. Verrazano's and Palace Malice's prep races were as good as you can want. They're the now horses, and we've been away for a while. But I'm not worried about Orb's fitness level, and I do think we've got the best horse."
Pletcher wondered if his colts' preps for the 1 1/4-mile Midsummer Derby may have been too good. When on your way to a 10th Saratoga training title, that's the type of problem you have.
"We're concerned we're trying to match lifetime-best performances in four weeks," he said. "It's always a balancing act, but everything we've seen in their training indicates they're still in peak form."