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Triple Crown dreams

R

ain in springtime. Nature is not a racing fan.

Shug McGaughey surveyed the muddy racetrack at Belmont Park. On Monday, Kentucky Derby winner Orb was to have an important piece of work before leaving for Pimlico and the 138th Preakness. Hopefully, the weather would clear by then, but on Sunday, Belmont was decidedly soggy. Then again, so was Churchill Downs on the day that provided what is, so far, Orb's finest hour.

"It's been a little bit difficult this week with the track that way," McGaughey said. "This morning, with those dogs up, he was looking at those dogs and jumping here and there, but [exercise rider Jennifer Patterson] keeps telling me not to worry. So, I'm not going to worry. I'm a bit more uptight than I was last time. Not because of anything, but you've got one under your belt so you're hoping maybe something good can happen to make it a fun three weeks. What will be, will be."

Life has been different in the McGaughey barn since Orb's convincing Derby victory. There were few races of consequence that had not been won by a McGaughey-trained horse before Orb won the Derby, but few things compare to winning America's race, especially for a native Kentuckian.

"It's difficult to keep it business as usual because it's been a pretty whirlwind life I've been living since last Saturday night," McGaughey said. "And I've got to remember I've got 35 or 40 other horses that are depending on me also, so sometimes I've had to stay at the barn another -- an extra hour or something. Or like this afternoon, I probably didn't leave until about noontime just to sort through some things, because normally I would leave between 10 or 11 or so. But, it's all been a huge thrill for me, and, you know, that's part of the excitement."

Also part of the excitement is the spotlight that follows winning a Derby trophy. McGaughey has long been accommodating demands on his time, and there is no shortage of media of every form, agenda and inclination in New York.

"I think it's a big responsibility to accommodate [the media] and try to portray what the win means to all of us -- myself and my family, the Janneys and Phippses and their families, and all the people at the barn," he said. "I'd like to get it out there to people that racing can be a fun and rewarding sport."

By late morning, the sun was shining and the forecast indicated that Orb's Monday work would be unaffected by the weather. The Belmont thoroughfare was fast by then, McGaughey's mind was squarely on business, and so, apparently, was Orb's.

Orb breezed a half-mile in a seemingly effortless 47.18 seconds -- the last furlong in 11.15 seconds in advance of a powerful gallop-out -- a move that screamed "ready" for the Preakness and, McGaughey said, sent a chill up his spine.

"I thought it was breathtaking," McGaughey said after watching the Derby winner walk quietly off the track. "For him to go off nice and relaxed in 24 and change and come home on his own the way he did, and gallop out the way he did, and drop his head and walk home, it sent cold chills up my back."

Better than his last work before the Derby?

Absolutely.

"

McGaughey If you're trying to make a horse do something that maybe he doesn't want to do, then it might take more out of him than it would naturally.

"-- Shug McGaughey, Orb's trainer

Such exuberance six days before a race is atypical of staunchly understated McGaughey, which says much of his expectations, which by now are widely shared. Orb is the unanimously top-rated 3-year-old on the ESPN.com and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association polls this week. He was installed Wednesday as the even-money favorite to win the Preakness.

"Right now I'm on cloud nine," he said. "The way he was striding today, the way he held his leads through the lane, I thought was just … I thought it was spectacular."

Within a few hours, Orb was on a van bound for Pimlico and, the next morning, McGaughey was discussing pedigree and Orb's suitability to the distances of the Triple Crown's races.

"I've always thought that if the horse wants to run that far, it's not going to be demanding on him. If you're trying to make a horse do something that maybe he doesn't want to do, then it might take more out of him than it would naturally," McGaughey said on Tuesday morning at Pimlico. "I think Orb is the kind of horse that naturally wants to go a distance of ground. In the Derby, with the pace, he got to run his race and we didn't take him out of any game plan."

The marriage of pedigree and raging form is an imposing combination that will be confronted by eight at Pimlico on Saturday. Formwise, what McGaughey has seen since Orb's arrival in Charm City has done nothing to lower his confidence level.

"He had a lot of energy [on Tuesday morning]. I walked him a few turns and had to give him up," a smiling McGaughey said. "So far, so good. I worried a little bit yesterday coming down here. 'Am I going too early?' But I'm glad we got in here while it's still good and quiet and got settled in. He had a good night and a nice morning. Everything is good.

"It shows the development he's going through. He's showing us in his daily routine since the Derby that he's still moving forward," he said. "What he's going to show in the afternoon, who knows? But right now, I'm really, really pleased with what I see."

The Kentucky Derby is part of Americana, the sun around which every racing year orbits, the reliable stage upon which a star is born. The Belmont Stakes can be the toughest ticket in New York or an afterthought. It is the Preakness that dictates whether the third leg of the Triple Crown is couched in high drama or drowned out by a yawn, the portal from history to potential immortality.

"I'm looking forward to Saturday afternoon," McGaughey said after Orb drew the rail Wednesday. "We've got an even-money shot in the Preakness. What more could I ask for?"

The answer to that question is one more.

As has every trainer of a Derby winner at this stage of the progression, McGaughey admits to the inevitable daydreams.

"I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said, 'No.' I try to block it out, but if you're in this position, anybody would think about it. Of course, you get reminded of it quite often," McGaughey said Wednesday. "It's a thrilling thought, but we've got to get by Saturday. If we get by Saturday, it'll be quite an interesting three weeks."