SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Later she would beam and become somewhat animated when talking about the workout, but for the moment Jennifer Patterson balanced herself cooly in the irons, motionless except for her arms, which moved in rhythm with the horse's stride, but only slightly, not to encourage but just to keep their place on the reins. Beneath her, the horse glided over the surface, contracting and then springing and reaching forward with each stride so that for an instant he would seem parallel to the earth, contoured like a horizon, and all the while, for the entire half-mile and beyond, he pointed his ears skyward, alert to the morning's birdsong or maybe to the cameras' shutters.
When Patterson stood in the irons, the workout done, he kept his rhythm and continued to roll, strongly and eagerly, just loving it. That was the Kentucky Derby winner. That was the horse that dazzled observers each morning at Churchill Downs with his exuberance. That was the horse that rallied from 17th while racing six-wide in the turn and won the Derby by 2½ lengths. That was Orb out there Monday morning at the Oklahoma Training Track, across Union Avenue from the legendary Saratoga Race Course, or at least that was a believable incarnation.
He's back, alert and focused, his bright eyes shiny as marbles. Whether he's ready to defeat Verrazano and Palace Malice -- two colts who have improved hugely since the Derby -- remains a question. In fact, it's one of the questions that make Saturday's Travers one of the most intriguing races of the year. But Orb is back.
After the Derby, which provided his fifth consecutive victory, Orb finished fourth in the Preakness Stakes, nine lengths behind Oxbow. He encountered traffic and didn't find that overwhelming stride, but most of all he just wasn't quite the same Orb. And then in the Belmont Stakes, he attempted to rally, emptying his energy into the effort, but the mountain was too high for him and he finished third.
"The Triple Crown took a lot out of him physically," said Patterson, who has been Orb's regular exercise rider since this winter. "You could tell he was tired. We were all tired."
Orb could run the best race of his life and still finish second or third.
"-- Jennifer Patterson, Orb's exercise rider
The real Orb wasn't lost in a fugue or a fog, but he was an empty vessel, a pot with nothing to percolate. So after the Belmont, Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey, sent the colt to the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Around the racetrack, some call it Resort Fair Hill. It is indeed something of a resort for racehorses, a pastoral playground, bosky and sylvan, with a hyperbaric chamber among its amenities. And there, with trainer Bruce Jackson supervising, the real Orb began to return.
Patterson said that just before leaving Fair Hill for Saratoga, Orb began to gallop with the old enthusiasm. And that energy was evident Monday morning, when he worked a half-mile in 47.66 seconds, with a final quarter-mile in about 23.80. He didn't buck or kick as he sometimes did in Kentucky before the Derby, but then again, he's older and more mature. But he had his coat and his energy and his stride. He's back.
"He's come a long way since the Belmont," McGaughey said. "He's put on weight and become more muscular. His energy is good, and he's enjoying the attention. He's more of a racehorse now."
McGaughey expressed confidence that Orb will run well Saturday, but it was a confidence leavened by realism. Orb is fit and ready and eager, but he hasn't raced in 11 weeks. And while Orb might be the same horse that won the Derby, Verrazano and Palace Malice aren't the same horses that lost in Kentucky. They've both won twice since then.
"Orb could run the best race of his life and still finish second or third," Patterson said, raising the questions that make the Travers so intriguing.
Is Verrazano developing into the super horse that he sometimes suggests he could become, or will he stumble over the 1¼ miles of the Travers? And will Palace Malice, who has looked especially sharp in his training here, continue to improve and make a claim to the divisional title? Could somebody else jump up and surprise, such as Will Take Charge or Golden Soul? Will Orb recover his best form? And even if he does, will his best still be good enough?
So many questions and so many complexities, yet the Travers will answer them in about two minutes Saturday afternoon.