BALTIMORE – Pretty much the last post position trainer Shug McGaughey would have wished on his charge Orb heading into Saturday’s Preakness Stakes was the inside rail in the nine-horse field.
In what may be the first bit of non-exceptional news the bay colt has been associated with in weeks, the No. 1 slot is exactly where the Kentucky Derby winner landed for the start of his quest to secure the second leg of the Triple Crown.
True to his collected nature, McGaughey barely so much as flinched even as a smattering of audible groans cropped up around him.
If what the Hall of Fame trainer has seen continues to hold true, it’s going to take more than a minor bump in the road to bring Orb back to the field.
Even with a less than ideal inside post, Phipps Stables and Stuart Janney III’s homebred classic winner Orb was made the overwhelming even-money favorite over eight others for the 138th running of the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.
Though no horse has won the Preakness from post No. 1 since Tabasco Cat in 1994, overmatched longshots have typically been fated to that slot in recent times. Since 1994, the only Preakness starters who landed in the No. 1 post and went off at single-digit odds were Cherokee’s Boy (8th in 2003) and Lion Heart (4th in 2004).
Where the No. 1 post is considered the kiss of death in the Kentucky Derby – a imposition that forces that unfortunate soul to have to angle away from the rail and then deal with up to 19 rivals closing in on them – there is not such automatic doom associated with the same spot in the smaller Preakness field.
Given Orb’s preference to take back off the pace anyhow, his connections were mildly subdued by the news, but in no way deterred.
“If I had come out the ‘1’ in the Derby, you’d almost have felt like you needed to go home,” McGaughey said. “But I don’t feel that way here. It’s not nearly (as bad) as it would be for the Derby. In the Derby…you have to kind of shove your way out of there or your going to get shut off and I don’t think that will be the case here.
“It’s a pretty straight start, there are only nine horses. I think we’ll just hold our position and see how the race spreads out.”
Where jockey Joel Rosario ultimately settles Orb in the 1 3/16-miles test will be determined in part by how the race’s expected speedsters respond after the break.
Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents and his forwardly-placed ways will be right alongside Orb in post No. 2 with Titletown Five, another who has shown early speed, in post No. 3.
“We’re completely comfortable with No. 2. If all goes well, (Orb) is going to be behind us – at least early,” said Goldencents’s trainer Doug O’Neill, who won last year’s Preakness with I’ll Have Another. “That’s where having a cool-headed guy like (jockey) Kevin (Krigger) will come into play. We have a horse who has gate speed and we’ll just have to see how it works out.”
Mylute, fifth in the Kentucky Derby, was made the 5-to-1 second choice out of post No. 5 with Illinois Derby winner Departing the 6-to-1 choice breaking from post No. 4.
“Orb isn’t going to go on with it so he’s going to have to go around,” said Al Stall Jr., trainer of Departing. “Out of the nine number, the ‘1’ is probably the one you want the least.”
The last time McGaughey saddled a Preakness starter was 1989 when his champion Easy Goer ended up the beaten favorite after a memorable stretch duel with Kentucky Derby hero Sunday Silence.
Where McGaughey came into that year’s Preakness unsure what Easy Goer would have for his rival, Orb would need to show some regression off his 2 1/2 length Kentucky Derby triumph to really level the playing field Saturday.
There was no such evidence during Orb’s four-furlong move at Belmont Park on Monday when the son of Malibu Moon covered the distance in :47.18 while looking as if he was in a high gallop.
“That’s as pretty a work as a Derby horse going into the Preakness can do in my opinion,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has three Preakness starters in Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five. “I have great respect for the way that horse is going to show up.”
Since he is the unabashed top target for the rest of the 3-year-old division currently, the No. 1 slot might just prove that much more fitting for Orb come Saturday evening.
“It’s a different feeling being here as the Derby winner but I’m relishing that too,” McGaughey said. “I think there is more there with him. I can’t wait to run him Saturday afternoon and I hope we’ll see something special.”