On paper, the Preakness looks like an easy assignment for Kentucky Derby winner Orb. He was a clear winner in the Derby, and the horses who finished second, third and fourth have bowed out of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. There will be a few new faces in the Preakness, but with the exception of Illinois Derby winner Departing, none figure to make any noise in Baltimore.
With the way horses are now campaigned, the Preakness is usually the easiest of the Triple Crown races. From the Derby, only the winner is guaranteed to show up in the second leg. The also-rans often scatter, their trainers petrified by the thought of running back in two weeks. The second-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the Derby are pointing for the Belmont.
That will make this Preakness a race between the Derby winner, a few Derby horses that finished up the track and a handful of horses that weren't good enough for the Derby or weren't ready for it. Orb was 5-1 in the Derby and might go off as low as even-money in the Preakness.
There might be only one way that he can lose -- if Goldencents bounces back.
When it comes to the pace, the Derby was as strange as it gets. There didn't appear to be an abundance of early speed in the race, yet the pace was viciously fast. The early fractions were 22.57, 45.33 and 1:09.80. Any horse that was even close to the lead had no chance.
What made it even stranger was that the suicide pace was set by Palace Malice, a horse who was nowhere near the front early in his past three races. Apparently, the decision to equip him with blinkers made him uncontrollable.
Goldencents chased Palace Malice for the first half-mile and it cost him. He was exhausted well before the top of the stretch and wound up finishing 17th, losing by 49½ lengths. That a horse could reverse a 49½-length margin two weeks later might seem inconceivable, gut Goldencents' race is a complete throwout. Speed horses that get caught up in insane early duels will often just stop running at some point in the race. And this is the same horse who wilted when engaged in a similar battle in the San Felipe only to win the Santa Anita Derby when things went his way.
Taking nothing away from Orb, but he had a perfect trip in the Derby. He was 16th early, right where you want to be when the pace is that fast, and jockey Joel Rosario timed his move perfectly. It's no coincidence that the first three finishers in the Derby were 16th, 15th and 18th after a half-mile.
That's not going to happen in the Preakness. In fact, considering the group that is assembling for the race, the pace might be on the slow side. That could give Goldencents the perfect set-up. Orb remains the most likely winner of the Preakness, but he's not going to have everything in his favor this time.
If Orb wins the Preakness, he will have to face the same hurdles that keep tripping up every potential Triple Crown winner in the Belmont Stakes. The modern horse is not trained to run three times in five weeks or anything close to it, and that's the primary reason no one has won the Triple Crown since 1978. A lot of that has to do with Lasix, which works to control bleeding and is at the center of a controversy over drugs used in the sport, specifically those administered on race day. It dehydrates horses and taxes them, and they need time to recover.
That said, Orb figures to stand up to the grind better than most. His biggest asset right now is his trainer, Shug McGaughey. McGaughey's horses take their time to get good. Orb is typical; he didn't break his maiden until his fourth career start. McGaughey likes to give his horses a foundation and an education before he truly unleashes them.
When they do get good, they stay good. Since Orb broke his maiden in November, he has not taken a backward step. That's rare these days. If anyone can keep him going through the Triple Crown series, it is McGaughey.