Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, eyeballing one of his runners as he is often wont to do, squinted into the midday sun outside his barn at Saratoga Race Course.
"Looks like my experiment worked," he said. "Now all I have to do is not screw him up."
Having rolled off the horse van on the muscle and rippling with fresh energy, Kentucky Derby winner Orb -- the subject of McGaughey's statement -- cropped at the emerald grass and then lifted his head to gaze off in the distance toward the Oklahoma training track. Perhaps he could hear the cheering of the crowd at the races across Union Avenue, or perhaps he was readjusting to the hustle and bustle of the New York oval after spending several weeks in the tranquil confines of Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, Md.
At any rate, Orb is back, and after a freshening from June 9 to Aug. 11 following a third-place finish in the June 8 Belmont Stakes behind runner-up Oxbow and winner Palace Malice, the strapping bay son of Malibu Moon has the Aug. 24 Travers Stakes squarely in his sights.
"I think we've got a much better horse today than we had earlier on in the year," remarked McGaughey, who has already saddled three Travers winners -- Easy Goer (1989), Rhythm (1990) and Coronado's Quest (1998). "He's mentally very sharp right now. All systems go."
Orb is just the fifth Kentucky Derby winner to run in Saratoga's marquee 3-year-old event in the past 20 years.
Tough contenders have established themselves in the time that has passed since the colt owned by Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III was sent to Fair Hill. First Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice came back from his Belmont score to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 27, taking the 1 ⅛-mile event by a length over Will Take Charge for trainer Todd Pletcher. Then stablemate Verrazano blew away the field the next day in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at the same distance, registering a 9 ¾-length triumph for Let's Go Stable and Coolmore partners.
Although Orb's powerful Derby performance off four straight victories -- including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby -- has far from been forgotten (along with a solid effort in the Belmont and a fourth in the Preakness), a good run in the 1 ¼-mile Travers is practically a necessity in order for him to maintain relevance where year-end honors are concerned. There's no doubt his résumé still packs the most punch in the division, but the Pletcher pair is poised to take him down.
If Palace Malice, with his Belmont and Jim Dandy wins, could take the Grade 1 Travers and go on to Jockey Club Gold Cup or Breeders' Cup Classic success, or if Wood Memorial winner Verrazano could string together Haskell and Travers wins and take an event against his elders, Orb's status as reigning sophomore would be in jeopardy. Along the same lines, Orb could still take home division honors if he lost the Travers, but would have to win a big race -- perhaps even two -- against the handicap division to get the job done.
Then there's the question of a potential Travers upset victory -- by Grade 2 Dwyer winner Moreno, perhaps, or by Derby runner-up Golden Soul, or even by Will Take Charge, who has been knocking on the door for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Such a victory would only serve to further cloud the sophomore picture, but this could actually aid Orb's case more than if Palace Malice or Verrazano were to beat him. Keep in mind, I'll Have Another took home divisional honors last season on the merits of his wins in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- despite having never raced again after leaving Baltimore.
Orb is just the fifth Kentucky Derby winner to run in Saratoga's marquee 3-year-old event in the past 20 years. Three of his peers -- Sea Hero, Thunder Gulch and Street Sense -- won the race. Super Saver, the last Derby winner to have raced in the Travers, ran 10th of 11.
With the second half of 2013 campaigns already under way, McGaughey is aware that his rested contender must step back up to the plate and perform. A victory could restore the buzz that surrounded the colt after his Derby triumph, a buzz that dwindled when he did not win in Maryland or in New York.
If he were to win the Travers, the trainer said, "Everybody would be talking about Orb again."
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.