Something that people who are new to horse racing fail to realize about our sport is that you can actually become a fan of individual horses and that it’s not all about the human connections. You all know what it’s like to attach yourself to a particular thoroughbred early in its career and follow their journey. Orb has been that horse for me from the moment he came barreling down the stretch in his debut at Saratoga right up through this past Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. I thought it would be appropriate to take a bit of a look back at what I’ve had to say about Orb on this blog between last August and now with a few video replays dispersed throughout for your viewing pleasure.
Debut: August 18th Saratoga Maiden
I had taken a weekend trip up to Saratoga for the Alabama Stakes with my sister, her boyfriend Chuck, and Cassandra, another friend of ours. While my sister and Cassandra went shopping in town, Chuck and I went to the races and saw some memorable performances, among which was Orb’s auspicious debut:
“This time, before even seeing the tote board, I predicted that Todd Pletcher’s first time starter, Violence, was probably going to be a strong favorite. I told Chuck that I had heard some hype about him and Pletcher was in the midst of compiling an amazing record with first time starting two year-olds at this meet. Not to mention that the horse sold for $600,000 as a yearling and was from the family of Alabama winners Sky Beauty and Maplejinsky. Sure enough, Violence opened up at 4-5 and stayed right around those odds for most of the wagering. While watching the horses down by the paddock, we also liked the looks of D. Wayne Lukas’s more experienced runner, Titletown Five, who is out of the excellent racemare D’Wildcat Speed, and Orb, who was going out for Shug McGaughey and Stuart Janney. However, I warned Chuck that it was usually best to watch McGaughey’s first time starters rather than bet on them, so he boxed Violence and Titletown Five in the exacta.”
“As soon as the horses broke from the gate, I leaned over to Chuck to point out that Orb reared up and failed to leave the gate with the rest of the field. This was probably for the best because I’d hate to think I talked us out of a longshot. Predictably, Titletown Five set the pace, but Violence soon pounced on him and as they ran past our seats in front of the eighth pole, they had begun to separate themselves from the field. The only danger to us cashing in appeared to miraculously be Orb, who had swung widest of all into the stretch and was barreling past horses as if he had just figured out this was a race. The two leaders had gotten too far in front for Orb to run them down, but he only lost the race by about a length. Of course Chuck and I were happy to have won, but even he pointed out that the third place finisher had run the best race of all. I immediately texted my father that I had just seen the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner make his debut and I wasn’t talking about the winner. I’m sure Violence is a nice horse and with that pedigree he will certainly stretch out. But McGaughey almost never has a firster ready to run well on the dirt and it’s scary to think how good this horse can be once he figures things out and gets some more experience under his belt.“
2nd Start: September 8th Belmont Maiden
“Orb seemed to grab everyone’s attention with his impressive finish in an August 18th maiden race. Totally dismissed on the toteboard at 29-1, he appeared to be one of many McGaughey firsters that was going to need a race. After watching that performance, the only thing this horse seems to need is some work at the starting gate. Breaking from the rail, he reared slightly and dwelt at the start, spotting the field many lengths as they headed up the backstretch. However, after settling into stride he really got rolling around the turn and had built up a ton of momentum coming into the stretch. Swinging wide as if he were Caleb’s Posse, he continued to close on the leaders but just ran out of ground, ultimately losing by a length and a quarter.”
“According to Shug, he had trained well prior to his first start although he hadn’t shown much speed. He thinks his 48 4/5 half mile breeze since then was improved and, while not happy to draw the rail again, he expects a good performance. There is ample pedigree to stretch out far beyond the mile he gets today so distance is no concern. Admittedly, there appear to be other promising prospects in this race, but Orb displayed something truly special in his debut. With normal second out improvement, he should clear this hurdle and be on to bigger and better things. The value may not be present, but I need to have a win bet on this Horse to Watch.”
Orb was a major disappointment in this second start. He once again lost the race at the gate but this time he came unraveled before the starter even let them go and never got involved in the running. The effort was almost too bad to be believed so Shug wisely gave him some time off and brought him back two months later in the fall at Aqueduct. In his third race on November 10th he was entered to go six and a half furlongs–even shorter than his debut. In retrospect, this was clearly a prep for his next start and he put in a similar effort to his debut while being beaten by two promising three year-olds in Vyjack and Clawback. Two weeks later he showed up in the entries again, this time going a mile and facing another promising Pletcher colt, Revolutionary.
4th Start: November 24th Maiden
“Both Revolutionary and Orb wound up on my “Horses to Watch” list for their respective debut efforts and, owing largely to circumstance, are still eligible to run against maiden company. I think these are two quality individuals who you may even hear about on the Derby trail next season. Only one can win today, but I think they are head and shoulders above this field.”
“[Orb] showed up for [the race] with a damaged reputation and was dismissed as a distant second choice behind the highly-touted Revolutionary. But the real Orb showed up once again and he made a wide rally from last-to-first to win going away at odds of 9-2. I still think his best efforts are ahead of him and that he is really going to relish two turns. He’s from a long line of Stuart Janney breeding leading all the way back to Shenanigans, the dam of Ruffian, so there is plenty of quality and stamina in this family. I’ll be interested to see what he can do down at Gulfstream and wonder if Shug will give him a chance in any Triple Crown preps. My early Derby hope, perhaps? I shouldn’t get ahead of myself…“
5th Start: Gulfstream Allowance
“I’ve been waiting to bet Orb in a spot exactly like this since watching him barrel down the stretch at Saratoga on Alabama Day last year. As a fan of this sport, I’m sure you all know that there are some horses you just instantly fall in love with and Orb is one of those for me. I’m a sucker for those Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney pedigrees (Orb’s female family traces back to Shenanigans, the dam of Ruffian). I stated immediately after seeing his debut at Saratoga that I had just seen the 2013 Derby winner and I’m sticking by that until proven wrong. Although he hasn’t exactly run back to that spectacular initial effort, I’m not too concerned since I realize that Shug McGaughey takes his time with these types. Yet even though his races haven’t come up that fast, the form has really held up. Out of his debut, Violence went on to win the G1 CashCall Futurity and Titletown Five subsequently broke his maiden with a 97 Beyer. Vyjack and Clawback and both stakes winners (each earning 96 Beyers) out of his race two back and Revolutionary returned from his third place finish behind Orb to break his maiden with a 102 Beyer in his next start.”
“Orb’s pedigree indicates that today’s distance should be right up his alley and I think the addition of Lasix is a signal that McGaughey is getting serious this time. He doesn’t have to run much faster than he already has to win this race, but I’m sure hoping he does.”
6th Start: Fountain of Youth Stakes
“Orb is officially on the Derby trail. I realize that Violence ran the better race, but I’ve been on Orb from day one and he’s going to love the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. When things like this happen the betting really doesn’t matter. I was at Saratoga on Alabama Day last year and said half-jokingly after that race that I had just seen the Derby winner, referencing Orb not Violence. It could be true.”
7th Start: Florida Derby
“I’m picking Orb on top. I’m been faithful to him from day one and I can’t change now. McGaughey continues to express amazement over the rate at which he’s consistently improved in his training even since the Fountain of Youth and he’s the one out of the three favorites who I expect to really step up his game in this race. He’s sure to get a little pace to run into and while I know there is no pressure on him to win this race to move onto Kentucky I just think that once he gets that motor going around the turn it’s going to be hard to stop him going this far.”
8th Start: Kentucky Derby
“Handicapping the Kentucky Derby is often a struggle between coming to terms with who you want to be the winner and who is the right horse to bet. Obviously, a quick glance through my blog entries over the past year will reveal that Orb is clearly the horse who I want to be the Derby winner. If I had to choose one horse out of this year’s field who I think could be a potential Triple Crown threat, it would be this horse. Given that he’s conditioned by the most patient trainer in the game I would assert that he still has room to improve and his pedigree suggests that the Belmont Stakes will be right up his alley. The prospect of a wet track doesn’t really bother me since his dam was in the money in her three of her four off track starts with one win and her dam, Mesabi Maiden, earned her biggest win, a victory in the Black Eyed Susan Stakes, in the mud. Orb has become one of the most reliable three year-olds in this year’s Derby field and I believe all he needs is a relatively clean trip.”
This was the second Kentucky Derby I’ve attended and anyone who’s been there knows that you don’t go to get a great view of the race. The atmosphere is so charged with anticipation, excitement, and intoxication that even when you do catch a fleeting glance of a television monitor it’s not so easy to pick out particular horses. Since I was situated at about the three-sixteenths pole I really had no idea where Orb was after seeing him break from the gate, after which Rosario took him back on the run past the stands. I could tell that the pace was extremely quick so I was hopeful he would come running but I still had no idea where he was in the pack when the field hit the top of the stretch and Normandy Invasion and Oxbow came into view as the leaders. Since I was just one step up above ten or so rows of hundreds of screaming fans standing on bleachers in front of me, all I could really see of the stretch drive were the jockeys’ silks over the tops of heads as they came by.
Then, just as the field passed directly in front of me I caught a glimpse of that white with red stripe of Stuart Janney’s silks moving fastest of all on the far outside. Within seconds I knew that if Orb was moving that way with just over a furlong to go that he was going to win. After having followed this horse’s journey since his debut, being at Churchill Downs to watch him pull away from the field in the final yards of the Kentucky Derby was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had at a racetrack. I can only hope that there are a couple more of those over the next five weeks.