BALTIMORE - The buzz for two weeks was that Orb had everything to contend seriously for a Triple Crown: great talent, a distance pedigree and the right trainer. It took less than two minutes for that dream to come crashing down Saturday at Pimlico. So the drought since Affirmed's 1978 sweep is 35 years and counting.
Orb's fourth-place flop in the 138th Preakness was far more depressing than the damp, cloudy weather. The race began poorly for the Kentucky Derby winner and never got better. After bobbling inward at the start from post position 1, the 3-5 favorite never reached contention. He and jockey Joel Rosario were seventh of nine after 6 furlongs, and it was over then. A "so what?" rally left Orb nine lengths behind front-running winner Oxbow, a 15-1 shot who almost nobody had talked about or given a chance.
"I'm disappointed," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "This was quite a run for a couple of weeks. We'll pack it up and go back home to Belmont Park and figure it out from there."
After dominating the Derby on a sloppy track, the long-striding colt never seemed comfortable on a track rated fast but dampened by about 30 minutes of rain three hours earlier. When he dropped back entering the stretch turn, it was clear he had no chance to catch Oxbow, who had plenty of energy left after setting slow fractions (6 furlongs in 1:13.26, a mile in 1:38.14).
"I thought the pace would be much quicker," McGaughey said. "I thought they would speed it up a little bit, but they didn't. I still thought he would close into it, but it just wasn't his day. He was just never real comfortable down there among horses."
At Churchill Downs, Orb crushed the horses who beat him Saturday. Besides Oxbow, he was 7 1/4 lengths behind runner-up Itsmyluckyday and 6 3/4 behind Mylute. On Derby Day, he beat sixth-place Oxbow by 9 3/4, Itsmyluckyday (15th) by 22 1/4 and Mylute (fifth) by 3 3/4. What a difference two weeks can make.
Besides Orb, his connections and those who bet him like a sure thing, the sport and the New York Racing Association were big losers. Whenever a Triple Crown is on the line, there's a three-week run-up in which the mainstream media plays up racing. Whenever history is on the line in the Belmont, the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" lives up to its name, and three times in the past 10 years, a Triple Crown try drew more than 100,000. When different horses win the Derby and the Preakness, the Belmont is just an endless lap around Big Sandy. It's still a big deal to the participants, but its Q-rating is greatly diminished.
Earlier Saturday, NYRA released a list of Belmont possibilities that included Revolutionary, Overanalyze and Palace Malice, three of the five Derby also-rans trained by Todd Pletcher, plus Derby runner-up Golden Soul, Peter Pan winner Freedom Child and new shooter Power Broker. More probably will join the field, but the end of Orb's winning streak at five stuck a sword in the balloon. It's all about anticipation, and that's gone.
"It was a great opportunity," McGaughey said. "I would be disappointed anytime you get this kind of an opportunity and don't get it done."
Millions share his pain.