08/19/2013 3:20PM

Saratoga: Orb looking revitalized for Travers

Barbara D. Livingston
Orb, with Jennifer Patterson riding, works a half-mile over the Oklahoma training track on Monday in preparation for his Travers start.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – When Orb gave trainer Shug McGaughey his first Kentucky Derby victory in May, it was viewed as a victory for the old school.

After disappointing efforts by Orb in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, however, the 62-year-old McGaughey decided to take a new approach in hopes of having Orb prepared to rebound in the latter part of the year.

From June 9 – the day after Orb finished third in the Belmont Stakes – until Aug. 11, Orb was based at the Fair Hill training center in northeastern Maryland It was a place McGaughey himself had never been to before and one to which he had previously sent just one horse.

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Being stabled at Fair Hill afforded Orb the chance to train in a bucolic atmosphere – similar to Payson Park, where Orb wintered – while taking advantage of such therapeutic facilities as a hyperbaric chamber and a cold water spa.

McGaughey will find out Saturday how well this move worked when Orb returns to the races in the $1 million Travers Stakes, where he will face Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice and Wood Memorial and Haskell Invitational winner Verrazano, among others, in this historic track’s annual marquee event.

“This is all completely new to me,” McGaughey said Sunday morning. “Why I would want to take on the burden of this, I don’t know, but I’m excited about it. But I’m putting my head on the chopping block, too. If we do it and it doesn’t work or it blows up in my face . . . that could happen. I just thought the atmosphere down there and the facilities that were available could work for us.”

When McGaughey looks at Orb now, he believes Fair Hill has done wonders for the colt owned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps family.

“I see a lot more horse. I see a sparkle in his eye that just came back,” McGaughey said.

McGaughey said he first began thinking about Fair Hill the week of the Belmont Stakes. After a long Triple Crown campaign, McGaughey wanted to get Orb away from the racetrack. He thought about Saratoga, but more and more horses are stabled here in the off-season, making for a busy Oklahoma training track.

After discussing the idea with his owners, his help, and Bruce Jackson, the former trainer who now runs Fair Hill, McGaughey decided to give the training center a try. It was supposed to be for only two weeks. It turned out to be two months.

For the first two weeks, Orb simply walked the shed and made four visits to the hyperbaric chamber, which delivers increased oxygen into a horse’s bloodstream and helps horses recover from hard races, hard workouts, flesh wounds, and respiratory issues.

“I said he’s not a bleeder and he doesn’t have anything the matter with him that I know of,” McGaughey said he told Jackson.

The cold water spa treatment helps in reducing any inflammation in the legs and accelerates the body’s natural healing process.

In addition to the therapy, Orb could get turned out in a paddock, roll in a round pen, and graze, which he did twice a day.

When he was planning to bring Orb back to Belmont Park in late June, McGaughey said he called Jackson to consult with him.

“I said Bruce ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” McGaughey said. “He said ‘Shug, this horse is doing awfully good here. I’d be a little hesitant about moving him.”

McGaughey’s assistant, Jennifer Patterson, Orb’s regular exercise rider, went to Fair Hill to check on Orb and agreed with Jackson’s assessment.

“He did look better. You could see he was happier,” Patterson said. “I told Shug if we’re not running until the Travers – and I could see he was relaxed there – why move him out of here so quickly?”

Soon, Fair Hill became a safe haven for other McGaughey-trained horses. His stable size eventually grew to 11. Recently, the Phippses and Janney made a deal to buy a barn at Fair Hill, and McGaughey will have horses there except in the winter.

“When I did see it, I knew we were in the right spot,” McGaughey said.

Patterson, who injured her back and ankle in a fall at Belmont a week before the Belmont Stakes, began getting on Orb toward the end of June. She galloped him daily and worked him six times at Fair Hill. When the weather made the dirt track bad, Orb trained over the Tapeta surface inside the dirt course.

“Each week, you could see him slowly put on weight. He was getting stronger,” Patterson said. “I have to say these last two weeks I felt him galloping more the way he was before the Derby. It took him a while to get over all that physically and everything.”

As McGaughey saw Orb progress, it helped him make another decision – skip a prep like the Jim Dandy or Haskell and train Orb to the Travers.

“People ask why didn’t you run him? Because I thought he was going forward all the time and I didn’t want to take a step backwards,” said McGaughey, who has won the Travers three times, the last being in 1998 with Coronado’s Quest. “I want to come with a loaded gun. I didn’t think I’d have any problem getting him fit enough, and I think he’ll be sharp enough.”

On Monday, Orb had his final workout for the Travers, a half-mile move in 47.66 seconds over the Oklahoma training track. He went equal quarters of 23.83 and galloped out five furlongs in 1:01.14.

“His stride, when he’s right, is so big, and he does things so easily he always fools me with his times,” Patterson said. “When he’s right, I just feel like we’re galloping around there, and I had that feeling again this morning, which is really nice.”

Orb was favored in all three Triple Crown races. He is likely to relinquish that role to either Palace Malice or Verrazano, both of whom have won their last two starts after getting beaten by Orb in the Kentucky Derby. With those three horses in addition to Dwyer winner Moreno and Jim Dandy runner-up Will Take Charge, this is shaping up as one of the toughest Travers in recent memory.

“That’s okay. That’s the way they’re supposed to come up,” McGaughey said. “We think we’ll be tough, too.”