Normandy Invasion and Vyjack are out, Mylute is in and Orb is ready. Very ready for Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The Kentucky Derby winner traveled Monday to Baltimore from Belmont Park after a workout that his trainer, Shug McGaughey, described as "nothing short of magnificent."
After five consecutive victories, could Orb still be improving? Is that possible? Maybe. With his win in the Kentucky Derby, Orb clearly took his performance level to a new high, but was that a by-product of the longer distance, the hot pace and the sloppy racetrack, or did he jump forward in maturity and ability and leave his rivals behind? Did his talent swell with the moment and rise -- forgive the trite sports patois that's usually vapid, but here it fits -- to the next level? Check "all the above," and you'd probably be right. But a few days before he attempts to appropriate the second of sport's most famous jewels in the Preakness, where the distance is slightly shorter than the Derby's, the track probably won't be sloppy and the pace might not be anything more than tepid, the most important question is whether Orb is still improving.
And Monday's workout suggested that's possible. With Jennifer Patterson virtually motionless in the saddle, Orb left the pole casually, running the opening quarter-mile in 24.47 seconds, but gained momentum through a final quarter-mile in 22.71 and then continued strongly beyond the wire, with the rider standing in the irons and offering no encouragement, through five-eighths of a mile in 59.54. His 47.18 was the fastest half-mile clocking of the morning at Belmont, and he looked like he was doing little more than galloping.
And so McGaughey's "magnificent" didn't sound like hyperbole but seemed proper and apposite for the horse that sits dominantly and unanimously atop ESPN.com's poll of Triple Crown contenders. The horses that are 2-4 in the poll won't race in the Preakness, but two of them, Revolutionary and Golden Soul, will take on Orb again in the Belmont Stakes.
Normandy Invasion, who's No. 3 in the poll, was first declared out of the Preakness, then possible and now definitely out. He made the lead at the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs, but he faltered late and finished fourth. He'll probably return to competition in July in either the Jim Dandy or Haskell, with the Travers on Aug. 24 at Saratoga the primary goal.
And so a field of nine is expected for the Preakness, including Govenor Charlie, who skipped the Derby and on Monday worked a bullet at Churchill Downs, three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.80 in company with the older stakes winner Fed Biz (1:11). In addition to Orb and Govenor Charlie, the horses expected for the Preakness are: Mylute, Oxbow, Will Take Charge, Titleown Five, Departing, Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday.
The Kentucky Derby winner worked a half-mile Monday at Belmont Park in 47.18 seconds, galloping out five-eighths of a mile in 59.54 – and, most important, his workouts have foreshadowed how he's about to perform. As for its making a positive impression, this move was very much like his half-mile on the Monday before he won the Kentucky Derby. If anything, though, the more recent move was even more impressive since it was accomplished more easily and without the encouragement of a workmate. (He worked with Overwhelming at Churchill.)
He's certainly one of the obstacles, and perhaps the most threatening one, between Orb and a sweep of the Triple Crown. When third in the Derby, Revolutionary did his best work in the stretch, suggesting he could be better suited to Belmont Park and its wide turns. Union Rags, Summer Bird and Jazil all ran well through the Churchill stretch, and they all won the Belmont.
3. Normandy Invasion
Normandy Invasion again showed his talent in the Derby, leading from the top of the lane to midstretch, but again he failed to get the job done, finishing fourth. In other words, he ran a mile around two turns, through the slop, despite a wide trip, in 1:36.16. This is a very talented horse, and when he figures things out, he could start visiting the winner's circle regularly. A light horse, he could benefit from some time off.
Although fifth in the Derby, he finished less than four lengths behind the winner and missed third narrowly. It was an outstanding effort, proving he belongs with the leaders of the division. With Rosie Napravnik riding, Mylute worked a half-mile Monday at Churchill in 49.60 seconds, and it was an inconspicuously good move. He reportedly jogged a mile, and then he galloped a mile before the workout. He's going to be a long shot, but he could hit the board in Baltimore.
Jumping onto the Triple Crown trail in Baltimore, Departing is an intriguing addition to the Preakness field. And keep in mind that two of the past seven Preakness winners (Rachel Alexandra and Bernardini) didn't run in the Derby. Departing, of course, finished third in the Louisiana Derby, a race that's starting to look stronger all the time, and since then he won the Illinois Derby. He worked an easy half-mile Sunday at Churchill Downs in 50.40 seconds.
6. Golden Soul
Golden Soul trained sharply in the week leading up to the Derby, and the stretch-runner clearly benefited from the rapid pace. But he also improved significantly, and there's reason to believe his improvement will continue. A late foal, he actually ran in the Derby as a 2-year-old. But he's getting better as he matures, and he could be a threat to win the Belmont, where he'll make his next start.
Jockey Kevin Krigger protected Goldencents in the Derby after the colt clearly indicated he was going nowhere. Goldencents finished 17th.
"I think it was kind of a demanding track," said his trainer, Doug O'Neill, "and it just wasn't to our liking. I think we're going to see a much better result Saturday." Goldencents is obviously much better than his finish in the Derby might suggest, and with a cooler pace, he's a threat to upset in the Preakness.
His Derby was a disaster and, quite simply, too poor to believe. He raced close to the rapid pace and faltered badly, finishing 17th while being eased in the stretch, all of which suggests he didn't handle the surface. He looked too good and trained too well to run that badly. His connections have enough confidence in him to move on to Baltimore, where he could be a threat.
Before the Derby, he looked like a potential superstar. About midstretch at Churchill Downs, he was starting to look like Ryan Leaf. The real Verrazano is probably something in between those extremes. But remember, he didn't even make his debut until New Year's Day, and he won his first four races in sensational style, taking the Wood without even feeling the whip. And remember -- for he'll certainly never forget -- John Velazquez took off Orb to ride Verrazano in the Derby. Verrazano has rare talent, and although he couldn't display it at Churchill, his talent could yet shine.
Itsmyluckyday is another who gave a disappointing performance in the Derby, finishing 15th. Did he peak early in the year? Maybe. Or was he just unable to handle the surface? Sunday, between races at Monmouth Park, he worked a half-mile in 47.20 seconds, galloping out five-eighths in 59.60.
Oxbow quietly gave an outstanding performance at Churchill Downs. Close to some of the fastest fractions in Derby history (45.33 for the opening half-mile and 1:09.80 for three-quarters), he still hung around to finish sixth. As his Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said, Oxbow loves to race, and he's so tough that he'll give his best effort no matter the surface or the timing. He could be a threat in the Preakness.
Also receiving votes: Will Take Charge (29), Freedom Child (23), Overanalyze (15), Princess of Sylmar (10), Beholder (8), Dreaming of Julia (7), Java's War (5), Palace Malice (4), Govenor Charlie (4), Noble Tune (3), Frac Daddy (2), Titletown Five (2).
How they voted: To see how our experts voted, click here.