LITTLE ROCK — The trainers of the 2-3-4 finishers in the Kentucky Derby won’t admit it, but Orb’s dominant victory at Churchill Downs influenced their decision to pass on the Preakness.
One so-so Preakness performance later, horses are coming out of the woodwork to take on the Derby winner in today’s Belmont.
Recently, 2006 and 2008 were the only times that the 2-3-4 Derby finishers were all missing from the Preakness, reflecting impressive Derby victories by Barbaro and Big Brown. Barbaro was injured in the Preakness but Big Brown impressed again in the second leg of the Triple Crown and faced only eight opponents in the Belmont.
Orb has 13 foes, including runner-up Golden Soul, third-place finisher Revolutionary, and seven others who finished 9 3-4 lengths or more behind him in the Derby. Many of those connections have convinced themselves that Orb’s victory was an anomaly, made possible by a sloppy track and a torrid pace. To them, Orb’s fourth-place finish in the Preakness says he is not to be feared.
Willing to blame Orb’s Preakness on a slow pace, an uncomfortable position inside of horses, and a so-so ride by Joel Rosario, a bounce-back is expected. Although this seems contrary to Orb’s off-the-pace style, the 1 1-2 miles of the Belmont works against him. Often, the race is won by a horse with enough speed to stay close to the pace, make a move on the far turn, and open an insurmountable lead over those with a closing kick.
Orb trainer Shug McGaughey says everything has been "A-1 forward" since the Preakness and that, "I think if things go right … I think you’ll see a different horse …"
Those words from a Hall of Fame trainer are guarantee enough for me that Orb will do his best. The concern is that an unpressured front-runner will leave the morning line favorite too much to do. Oxbow, the sixth Oaklawn Park-campaigned 3-year-old to win the Preakness since 2004, employed those tactics in Baltimore.
Oxbow is a logical choice to grab the lead in the Belmont, but jockey Gary Stevens might not want to tackle Freedom Child in the early going. The winner of a maiden race in March, Freedom Child flourished on Belmont’s sloppy track, leading every step while winning a stakes race by 13 1-4 lengths in May. Freedom Child is one of four horses making their Triple Crown debut in the Belmont.
To me, Palace Malice is intriguing. He had such a rough trip in the Louisiana Derby that trainer Todd Pletcher pushed to get the colt ready for the Blue Grass two weeks later in hopes of qualifying for the Derby. Palace Malice came through, running second.
Pletcher added blinkers for the Derby to keep the colt focused and the move backfired. Palace Malice broke fast under Mike Smith and opened a three-length lead through a half-mile that would zap any 3-year-0ld going 1 1-4 miles.
"The blinkers were the villain," said Dogwood Stable president Cot Campbell. He said Smith said he "did everything he could and still could not apply any restraint."
For the Belmont, Pletcher dumped the blinkers and kept Smith.
The last chance to cash an exacta on the Triple Crown comes down to Orb, Palace Malice, and Frac Daddy. Off his second in the Arkansas Derby, Frac Daddy looked like a horse with a license to improve, but he was among the distant also-rans in the Kentucky Derby.
"Sometimes you throw deep and it goes incomplete, but you can’t score if you don’t throw," trainer Ken McPeek said about entering Frac Daddy in the Belmont.
A proponent of running the football, I included Frac Daddy because McPeek said the colt has worked "freaky good" and because the trainer has won big races with longshots.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.