Every competitive horse race in the country is charted by the Daily Racing Form or Equibase. They provide a statistical and written narrative of what each contestant did in every race. The Preakness is not just another race. It is one of the few nationally relevant contests each year. On Saturday in Baltimore Kentucky Derby Champion Orb ran the Preakness as if he was just another horse running in a race of little consequence.
From a numbers standpoint Preakness winner Oxbow led throughout and beat a field of nine by one and three-quarter lengths. He “won driving” according to the chart. At more than 15-1, Oxbow was the biggest Preakness upset since Master Derby won the 1975 Preakness at 23-1. As for Orb, besides going off as the second heaviest favorite in the race since 1980, nothing else about his afternoon was remarkable.
Orb broke from the number one post a little bit slow, was sixth at the first call, advanced to fifth at the halfway mark, fell back to seventh at the three-quarter mark, and finished an uncompetitive fourth. The chart described it as “bobbled inward at the break, recovered and moved up within range while saving ground around the first turn, eased off the inside and quickly reached a striking position between foes five furlongs out, dropped back a bit on his own entering the far turn, moved to the rail soon after, gave chase into the lane, angled out past the three sixteenths marker and finished with some interest between rivals.”
The fourth place effort was the second worst for a Derby winner in the Preakness since Barbaro broke down during the 2006 running of the race. What is so frustrating is two fold. First, racing insiders like Andrew Beyer and Steve Crist, among the most respected observers in the sport and guys that are not prone to hyperbole, felt that Orb could be the special horse that the industry has long been seeking. Second, not only did Orb lose, he never even threatened to win the slowest running of the event since 1961.
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When Orb thundered home to win the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago he did so with the power and moxie of a superstar. Whether it be the sloppy conditions he enjoyed, or the fact he never seemed comfortable along the rail at Pimlico, he was a different horse on Saturday than we saw at Churchill Downs.
Perhaps it was a mistake to anoint Orb super after winning the Derby. It is not as though he was undefeated or beat a group of horses that anyone characterized as great. However, it is so rare that the horse with all of the Derby week hype performs up to the expectations that hang over them. Orb prepared for both races seamlessly, is trained by a trusted and respected conditioner, ridden by the hottest jockey in the country, and gave no indication that he would not perform well in Baltimore. That is the great frustration, not that he lost, but was defeated without a fight.
Unlike Mine that Bird and Giacomo, Derby winners never heard from again, Orb is likely to have a successful career with competitive races at the Belmont, or Haskell, or Travers in the coming months. If he remains on the track, instead of moving to the lucrative breeding ground, it is reasonable to believe he will run in Breeders Cups and continue to improve in the next couple of years. However, his Preakness no show will frustrate racing fans who continue to be starved for a Triple Crown winner.
Affirmed continues to be the last Triple Crown champion. It was 1978 when he battled throughout a mile and a half and held off Alydar by a head to capture the Belmont. The chart read “Affirmed went right to the front and was rated along on the lead while remaining well out from the rail. He responded readily when challenged by Alydar soon after entering the backstretch, held a narrow advantage into the stretch while continuing to save ground and was under left-handed urging to prevail in a determined effort.” Orb had no such determination on Saturday. The wait continues.