Look beyond Orb's bad day

Kentucky Derby winner Orb can shake off his bad start in the Preakness and still have a great year. Getty Images

Last Thursday, Justin Verlander didn't last three innings. A Cy Young Award winner and an MVP, the Detroit Tigers' ace is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, but on this night he couldn't pitch his way out of a mosquito net. He walked in a run, hit a batter and tossed up a beach ball that a guy hitting .176 on the year smacked into the stands beyond left field. The Texas Rangers battered Verlander for eight runs.

And you know what? Friday morning, he was still one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. A very bad day couldn't diminish his accomplishments. It couldn't even begin to cast a shadow on the awards or the no-hitters or the 78 victories over four years. Achievement is an accumulation, not a spike. And inconsistency is just one of life's many embarrassing actualities.

Perhaps we made too much -- and by "we," I mean media and fans, myself included -- of Orb's victory in the Kentucky Derby. Let's not repeat the mistake by making too much of his loss in the Preakness. Perhaps he, too, had a bad day.

But it wasn't necessarily a bad day for racing. Yes, Triple Crown hopes are endemic in the sport, and Orb's loss in Baltimore means, of course, that again this year no horse will sweep the famous series. But the Preakness doesn't diminish Orb's accomplishments, it doesn't mean he can never become a great racehorse, nor does it mean this group of 3-year-olds has less ability than the also-rans in "America's Got Talent."

Among the specious aphorisms that come around as regularly as the flu bug, here's one of the more fatuous: Only great racehorses win the Triple Crown, and when a horse fails to sweep the series it's because he's not a great racehorse.

Really? Triple Crown winners Sir Barton, Omaha, and Assault all lost more races than they won, combining for 40 victories but also for 51 losses in their careers. Were they truly great? Alysheba, Spectacular Bid and Sunday Silence, who combined for eight Eclipse Awards, including three of a golden hue, in their careers, all won the Derby and Preakness but lost the Belmont. Does that then mean they weren't great?

Yes, great horses outrun trouble, and they can overcome even the worst circumstances. But that's another of those viral aphorisms.

The Preakness, in other words, said very little about Orb or his potential, especially given the circumstances. Just as they contributed to his superlative Kentucky Derby performance, circumstances cleared the way for his defeat in the Preakness. The Derby pace (45.33 for the opening half-mile and 1:09.80 for three-quarters) boiled with such heat that anybody close to it was likely to succumb to its vapors and stagger down the lane -- among the speedsters and pressers, only Oxbow, in a harbinger of what was to come, even hung around (2 ½ lengths back) until midstretch -- and that a horse running the second turn effectively and finishing powerfully would win the roses. The Preakness pace (48.60), on the other hand, didn't even rise to a tepid temperature. Governor Charlie missed the break, and others with speedy inclinations were taken in hand, stoutly restrained by riders no doubt instructed to avoid, at all costs, a Derby-like meltdown. And the result, as Gary Stevens said after leading throughout on Oxbow, was a gift, an uncontested three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.26.

And then there was the rail, the inside path where all Friday and again Saturday horses seemed to flounder and struggle. If a horse began there, or as soon as he dropped to the Pimlico rail, he sputtered along like a jalopy in need of a lube job and an oil change. Orb spent much of the Preakness racing along that inside path. If not on the rail, he was in traffic. As his trainer, Shug McGaughey said, Orb was never comfortable.

Yes, great horses outrun trouble, and they can overcome even the worst circumstances. But that's another of those viral aphorisms. In truth, circumstances can beat any athlete, any racehorse. Native Dancer couldn't overcome his trip in the Derby, Gallant Fox couldn't overcome the muddy track in the Travers, and not even Man o' War could overcome the start of the Sanford. Were they not great?

Perhaps we should have foreseen what happened Saturday in Baltimore. Given the fast pace in the Derby, wouldn't everyone approach the Preakness pace more cautiously, and wouldn't that leave Oxbow, arguably the best of the speed, cruising? Orb had progressed so steadily and boldly since the first of the year that by continuing along the same vector and at the same rate he was going to be performing at Secretariat levels by the fall, and so didn't his progress have to end, or at least pause, somewhere? Yes and yes again, but the possibilities were maddening, and so expectations focused on the singular outcome that was not only most probable but also the most comforting and desirable.

But it didn't happen. Because of the pace and the traffic and the slow rail, because of Oxbow and the circumstances, but most of all because Orb just had a very bad day, it didn't happen. One of the first lessons a person must learn as a horseplayer is to forgive racehorses for being racehorses.

Because of the pace and the traffic and the slow rail, because of Oxbow and the circumstances, but most of all because Orb just had a very bad day, it didn't happen.

And so there's not a Triple Crown possibility, but beyond that all the meanings and implications emanating from this Preakness are positive and encouraging. The Preakness confirmed what the Derby suggested: that Oxbow is very good. He might not be as good as he looked Saturday, when everything went his way; but he's plenty good enough to open any gift he finds under the tree, even against very tough opposition; and Gary Stevens, as if everybody hadn't noticed already, has returned not just to the saddle but to the highest level of his profession, and he's more than capable of outriding and outsmarting most of his younger rivals. The Preakness means that Calumet Farm has returned not just to prominence but to the winner's circle and that D. Wayne Lukas has won more Triple Crown races, 14, than any other trainer in the history of the sport.

And the Preakness means the Belmont Stakes will probably attract a large and contentious field, bringing back Golden Soul and Revolutionary from the Derby, along with Oxbow and perhaps Orb for a showdown, with several newcomers possible, including Peter Pan winner Freedom Child and the filly Unlimited Budget. The Preakness means the race for divisional honors will go on, possibly into the fall and probably with an invitation for others to join the fray. Yes, a Triple Crown possibility would have inspired and excited even the most phlegmatic fans. And Saturday was a very bad day for Orb, but it wasn't necessarily a bad day for horse racing.