Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2013

At The Preakness, Hope Is An Also-Ran

There was a moment late Saturday afternoon, as the field of nine horses came off Pimlico’s tight first turn and began to race down the back stretch in the 138th Preakness, when hope rose in the hearts of horse racing fans. Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner sent off as the prohibitive 3-5 favorite by devotees of a sport desperate for the allure of a Triple Crown champion, was in the middle of the pack and running well. Two weeks earlier, in the slop at Churchill Downs, Orb was easily the class of the field. In Louisville jockey Joel Rosario took the late closer well back off the searing early pace set by Palace Malice. At the half mile pole Rosario and his mount trailed all but three of the nineteen-horse Derby field. Then, as is his preference, Orb swung to the outside and began passing horses. As the pack turned for home and the early leaders began to stagger, Orb charged down the middle of the lane to win by 2 ½ lengths.

It was a surpassingly popular win. The 28-year old Rosario is the nation’s leading jockey, one who has proven he has the ability to win on both coasts. As a 21-year old Rosario left the Dominican Republic for California. After quickly rising through the ranks he dominated at the major west coast tracks from 2009-2011; winning the riding titles at all six of Hollywood Park’s meets during the three-year span, plus three titles at Del Mar and two at Santa Anita. Last year he moved east, and after taking some time to adjust to the generally slower surfaces at east coast tracks he began to replicate his earlier success. He won big at Gulfstream Park last winter, then guided 38 winners home at Keeneland’s meet and rode five winners on opening day at Churchill Downs. Along the way he even found time for a quick trip to the Persian Gulf, where he rode former Derby winner Animal Kingdom to victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March.

If Rosario is a rock star among jockeys, the rest of Orb’s connections are horse racing royalty. Co-owners and cousins Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney III are long-time horsemen who have focused as much on improved breeding and giving back to their sport as they have on winning stakes races. Phipps is a past chairman of the New York Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association, and serves on the board of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Trainer Shug McGaughey is a Hall of Famer with wins in more than 240 graded stakes races. His 9 Breeders’ Cup victories rank behind only D. Wayne Lukas for wins in that event.

But unlike so many modern owners and trainers who measure success by simply getting their horses into the Triple Crown races, Orb’s connections respect their sports’ premier events too much to enter a horse they know can’t contend. McGaughey took 2nd in the 1989 Derby with Easy Goer, and then didn’t return to Louisville on the first Saturday in May until 2002, when Saarland finished 10th. He didn’t take another shot at winning the blanket of roses until saddling Orb last month; and he did that only after the horse posted an impressive come from behind win in the Florida Derby at the end of March.

After his win in Kentucky Orb was shipped back to McGaughey’s base of operations at Belmont Park. There any concerns that the Derby might have taken too much out of him were erased by an impressive workout last Monday, after which he was loaded into a van for the trip down to Baltimore. Even as he was making the trip, news of his strong final workout fueled Triple Crown fever for Orb.

It has been 35 years since a teenaged Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed to three successive victories over Alydar; by a length and a half in the Derby, a neck in the Preakness, a nose in the Belmont. In that ever-lengthening interval 19 horses have galloped to victory in two of the three races. But as the years have passed without any steed able to capture all three, it has become fashionable to suggest that modern breeding and training methods have put the Triple Crown out of reach of today’s thoroughbreds.  Critics speculate that the always delicate breed is now too fragile and injury-prone; or that the light racing schedules favored by owners and trainers who see more money to be made in the breeding shed than on the track leave the entrants unprepared for the grind of three major races in five weeks. While a Triple Crown won by a horse with such old-school connections as Orb would not totally silence the doubters, it would prove the feat is still possible while bringing fresh attention and badly needed positive publicity to the sport.

When Wednesday’s post position draw put Orb on the rail there was some concern that he might get boxed in and be unable to mount his signature closing charge. But as the horses broke from the gate Goldencents charged to the lead from the second post, giving Orb room to run. Rosario settled his horse well off the rail as the pack chased Oxbow and Goldencents into the first turn. The pace was slow, giving the sense that the frontrunners might not exhaust themselves and perhaps creating a need for a closer like Orb to make his move earlier than usual.

As if in answer to that imperative, before thousands at Pimlico and millions watching from home, the moment arrived. Orb moved inside past Departing, seeking room between Titletown Five on the rail and Itsmyluckyday who raced in front of Departing. A clear lane opened, giving Orb room to run past the two horses on either side of him and then begin stalking the two leaders on the far turn. As hope burned bright the red and white silks of Phipps Stable moved briefly into third position. And then, as suddenly as it arrived, the moment passed. Rather than Orb passing the two horses on his flanks it was they who were passing him, as Departing did right after. At the top of the stretch the Derby winner was 6th, some eight lengths behind Oxbow. While the Preakness was not quite over, Orb’s race was. As suddenly as it had flared, hope for a Triple Crown champion was extinguished.

We’ll never know of course, because as the old saying goes, the horse ain’t talkin’. But in five straight wins Orb had shown a clear preference for running unimpeded, trailing behind the pack and swinging wide to victory. Thus the easy surmise is that when he found himself in close quarters he discovered conditions that were not to his liking, and so chose not to run.

Amidst the disappointment it should be noted that in Oxbow’s near wire-to-wire victory there are good stories. Indeed, about the only sure bet in horse racing is that behind every winner there are stories to be told. On Saturday Oxbow’s tales included the 14th win in a Triple Crown race for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. With it the 77-year old Hall of Famer passed Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Triple Crown wins. Another of the winner’s stories was that of jockey Gary Stevens. The 50-year old captured his 3rd Preakness and 9th Triple Crown race, and he did so after coming out of a 7-year retirement. Sport is full of comeback attempts; few are ever so successful.

But as good as they are those stories pale compared to what might have been. Had Orb charged to the front at Pimlico, 150,000 or more would have made their way to Belmont Park in three weeks time. Now the crowd will at best be a third of that number, as the long Triple Crown drought goes on, and doubts continue to grow. Desperate for a true champion, horse racing instead remains on the fringe of sports, holding little appeal for all but the most diehard fans. For yet one more year the moment of hope arrived on Saturday afternoon. But then just like similar moments for more than three decades, indeed even like time itself seems to have done, it passed horse racing by.

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