BALTIMORE - The Kentucky Derby is a crazy spectacle at "The World's Most Legendary Racetrack," as Church- ill Downs bills itself. The sequel is at funky old Pimlico, the plain and simple "Home of the Preakness," yet second fiddle still can play a sweet tune.
Derby fever is an incurable ailment that makes multimillionaires delusional about 3- year-old thoroughbreds. There has never been a documented case of Preakness fever, and the run-up to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown is a bless- ed relief after the frenzy of Derby week. The Preakness' greatest charm is that as long as the Derby winner shows up, immortality is possible. No horse has swept the series since Affirmed in 1978, but Orb could have a pretty good chance.
The long-striding son of Malibu Moon developed slowly as a 2-year-old, needing four races to break his maiden. Trainer Shug McGaughey had no visions of glory, then Orb began to come around in a hurry.
"Last year, nobody knew who Orb was. On the first of January, we didn't think we'd be here," McGaughey said. "After he won [an allowance race] at Gulfstream, I didn't know exactly where we were. Then he won the Fountain of Youth and it all changed. From the Fountain of Youth to when he won the Florida Derby, I'd never been around a horse who changed as much as he did."
Orb continued thriving in the five weeks between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, which he dominated by 2 1/2 lengths. He'll be odds-on to provide a rerun Saturday in the 13/16-mile Preakness, which would set up the 13th Triple Crown bid in the past 34 years. Something always went wrong, often bizarrely, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Stuart Janney III, 64, and his cousin Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, 72, bred and own Orb, the first Preakness runner for each. Janney was only 8 and Phipps was 16 when their grandmother, Gladys Mills Phipps, won it in 1957 with Bold Ruler. Phipps, a Florida resident, has roots in Old Westbury, but Janney was born and raised in Maryland and still lives there.
"I've been coming to the Preakness since I was a kid," Janney said. "There were only five or six I haven't attended. It was part of my schedule, and it wasn't because I had a horse in the race. It was because it was fun."
The tension before the Derby can be unbearable. For the Preakness, the heat is on only the Derby winner, and Orb appears ready for another knockout performance.
It's only the third Preakness for McGaughey. He hasn't been back since 1989, when he took one of the worst beats of all time in the ultimate stretch duel: Sunday Silence by a nose over Easy Goer. "Of all the races Easy Goer lost, the Preakness is the one I think about the most," McGaughey said.
In Louisville, the vibe was that the Derby finally would have Shug's name on it. In Crabtown, the expectation is that the racing gods will pay him back for his Easy Goer anguish.
"It's just like I was at the Derby," McGaughey said. "I was quietly confident all week that Orb was going to run his race . . . I feel the same this time. Everything right now is a go."