The Triple Crown buzz began minutes after Orb splashed across the wire at Churchill Downs, and optimism about the Kentucky Derby winner isn't misplaced. He has the pedigree, connections and versatile running style that inspire confidence, and his brilliant workout Monday at Belmont Park added the finishing touch.
"His work was nothing short of magnificent,'' trainer Shug McGaughey said. "I couldn't be happier with where we are.''
But what about racing him again after only two weeks off? Usually, stakes horses are asked to do that nowadays only between the Derby and Preakness, and every year it's portrayed as a major obstacle. Yet starting in 1997, only four Derby winners -- Monarchos (sixth, 2001), Giacomo (third, 2005), Barbaro (broke down, 2006) and Super Saver (eighth, 2010) -- did worse than second at Pimlico. Not only that, but when Orb won for the first time last November, it was after a 14-day layoff.
"It's something I've thought about, that I have run him back in a hurry and he ran well off of it,'' McGaughey said. "But what's giving me confidence is what I've seen coming out of his races. You'll see him the next morning and he acts like he never ran.''
You won't ever hear the low-key McGaughey declare victory "a foregone conclusion,'' as Rick Dutrow did in 2008 before Big Brown's Belmont Stakes meltdown. Yet McGaughey couldn't be more upbeat about his chances, and it's hard to argue against him.
"I'm pleased he's getting all the attention and I'm pleased he's been handling it well,'' McGaughey said. "I'm looking forward to Saturday afternoon. We've got an even-money shot in the Preakness. What more could I ask for?''
Orb's 2½-length Derby triumph, in which he rocketed from 17th on the backstretch into the lead inside the eighth pole, chased away 13 of the 18 also-rans. Mylute (fifth), Oxbow (sixth), Will Take Charge (eighth), Itsmyluckyday (15th) and Goldencents (17th) return, and the new shooters are Govenor Charlie, Titletown Five and the talented gelding Departing, who grew up with Orb at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.
No one ever knows exactly what will happen when the gates open, but here's a semi-educated guess. Goldencents (post 2) and Titletown Five (post 3) will go to the front, with Govenor Charlie, Itsmyluckyday and Oxbow not far behind in the second flight. After breaking from the rail, Joel Rosario will save ground with Orb into the turn and down the backstretch, staying out of trouble and biding his time. Entering the far turn, Rosario will swing three-wide and begin his move, and Orb will flash past the front-runners before taking the lead inside the three-sixteenths pole. He'll draw clear by 2¾ lengths as Departing rallies for second and Goldencents holds on to take a photo for third from Mylute.
While winning 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons, UCLA coach John Wooden said he focused on his own team, never the opponent. That's how McGaughey is approaching this race.
"I'm not going to worry about the other horses,'' he said. "My main concern is getting Orb to Saturday the best way I possibly can. I think he has fresh legs because we didn't overcook him over the winter. I think if Orb runs his race, they're going to have him to beat.''
He will, and they won't.