05/16/2013 11:35AM

Preakness Stakes: Orb inspires confidence in McGaughey

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Tom Keyser
Orb, out for exercise Thursday morning at Pimlico, will be heavily favored against eight rivals in Saturday's Preakness.

BALTIMORE – The morning after winning the Kentucky Derby with Orb, trainer Shug McGaughey stood under the shed row of Barn 43 at Churchill Downs, reflecting on his first Derby win and what it would mean two weeks hence in the Preakness Stakes.

“I’m glad I’ve got the target on my back,” McGaughey said. “I’m very comfortable being in that position.”

His demeanor was a tell. Hear that coming out of the mouth of some trainers, and it could be perceived as a hopeful boast, perhaps even a betrayal of underlying nervousness. Not with McGaughey. Sensible, never one to oversell his horses, he said it matter-of-factly, with the quiet confidence of someone who has prepared himself for this moment, and who believes he has the horse capable of handling what is to be asked of him.

For certain, the target certainly has become more defined. In the 19-horse Derby, it was every man – and horse – for himself, and though Orb was favored, it was impossible for any horse to be singled out in that rodeo. But in the 138th Preakness here Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, there is no question who the horse is to beat. The target will be easy to spot, because he will be wearing saddle cloth No. 1.

[PREAKNESS STAKES: Live updates and live video from Pimlico]

“It wouldn’t be the one I’d pick out,” McGaughey said of his post after the draw Wednesday. “But it’s just a nine-horse field, so the horses should be spread out.”

In the 1 1/4-mile Derby, Orb rallied from 16th, benefiting from a pace that was hotter than expected, which spread out the runners, prevented crowding into the first turn, and resulted in a relatively clean race considering the size of the field and the sloppy conditions. The Preakness field is less than half the size of the Derby, and the pace does not figure to be nearly as quick, though it should be solid, with the likes of Goldencents, Govenor Charlie, Oxbow, and Titletown Five all preferring to be forwardly placed.

But even if the pace is dawdling, even if the 1 3/16-mile race turns into an eight versus one alley fight, McGaughey believes Orb has developed into a horse who can adjust to the situation.

“If Orb runs his race, I think they’ll all have him to beat,” McGaughey said. “There was a fast pace in the Fountain of Youth, and he won. There was a slow pace in the Florida Derby, and he won. And he’s been a pretty convincing winner. No matter the scenario, I think we’ll be fine.”

Orb heads into the Preakness riding a five-race win streak. He has not taken one step back since defeating maidens in his fourth career start on Nov. 24 at Aqueduct. Significantly, he won that maiden race just 14 days after his prior race, and though running back in the Preakness two weeks after the Derby is hardly an equivalent comparison, it does show that Orb can handle a quick turnaround.

“We haven’t overcooked him all winter,” McGaughey said. “I think he’s as fresh as most, even though he just ran.”

And because he has yet to take a step back, McGaughey does not think Orb has yet reached his peak.

“I think there’s more there,” he said. “One thing that surprises me is how well he comes out of his races, both physically and mentally.”

It will be up to jockey Joel Rosario to try and work out a good trip with Orb. He will have to play the break, gauging the immediate intentions of the horses just to his outside – Goldencents and Titletown Five – while cognizant of horses folding over from outside him as the field heads toward the first turn.

McGaughey said he will give Rosario the same instructions he gave him at Churchill Downs, simply, “Ride him with confidence.”

Of Orb’s eight rivals, five are coming out of the Derby – Mylute (fifth), Oxbow (sixth), Will Take Charge (eighth), Itsmyluckyday (15th), and Goldencents (17th).

Mylute is ridden by Rosie Napravnik, who began her career in Maryland and will be attempting to become the first female jockey to win the Preakness.

Oxbow ran a courageous race in the Derby, finishing best of those who were closest to the pace.

“He had every right to chuck it in, but he battled through the stretch,” said his jockey, Gary Stevens.

Will Take Charge moved alongside Orb on the final turn of the Derby before running into traffic trouble in upper stretch. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, made a jockey switch, replacing Jon Court with Mike Smith.

“I always tell these riders, ‘We’re just gonna date, we’re not gonna marry,’ ” Lukas said.

Itsmyluckyday and Goldencents both were highly regarded Derby contenders whose connections believe were compromised by the sloppy, sealed track that day.

According to The Weather Channel, the forecast for Saturday is for a high temperature of 73 degrees, with a 30 percent chance of showers.

The other three runners – Departing, Govenor Charlie, and Titletown Five – were not in the Derby.

The most highly regarded of that trio is Departing, who has won 4 of 5 starts, most recently in the Illinois Derby, in which he received Lasix for the first time. His only loss came in his prior start, the Louisiana Derby, in which he was third.

“He gained a ton of seasoning in the Louisiana Derby,” trainer Al Stall Jr. said. “He’s on an upward swing. Horses go in different directions, and they usually do it in a hurry.”

Govenor Charlie is the least-experienced horse in the field, with just three starts. He won the Sunland Derby on March 24, then missed the Kentucky Derby because of a sore foot, and only got the green light after a workout Monday at Churchill Downs. His trainer, five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert, is very instinctive, so the fact he’s running Govenor Charlie in this spot is significant. He wouldn’t be here just to take a wild stab.

Titletown Five looks overmatched, both in terms of performance and distance. On paper, he should be the early pacesetter, but Lukas – who trains him and Oxbow, in addition to Will Take Charge – chose Julien Leparoux as Titletown Five’s new rider. Leparoux’s specialty is getting horses to relax and finish.

“I think his style will help take a little off the fastball,” Lukas said.

The Preakness is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:45 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Preakness is listed as 6:20 p.m.

The Preakness will be shown live on NBC in a two-hour telecast beginning at 4:30 p.m. There will be live pre-Preakness coverage, including three stakes races on the undercard, on the NBC Sports Network, beginning at 2:30, and there is a post-race show, at 6:30, also on NBC Sports Network.

If Orb prevails, he will move on to the June 8 Belmont Stakes in New York seeking to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. That 35-year drought is the longest in Triple Crown history since Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner in 1919.

McGaughey said he would “be lying” if he said he didn’t think about the Triple Crown implications.

“I do, but I try to block it out,” he said. “I can’t imagine how much fun that would be. Most of my training life has been at Belmont Park. I think that would be a heck of a lot of fun.”