05/16/2013 10:36AM

Steven Crist: Each of Orb's races is better than the last

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Barbara D. Livingston
Orb working at Belmont Park on Monday morning. Trainer Shug McGaughey has called his recent works "breathtaking" and "magnificent."

In many years, a Kentucky Derby winner who won the roses on a wet track with a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 104 would be only a tepid favorite for the second leg of the Triple Crown. On Saturday, however, Orb will be even money or less in the 138th Preakness Stakes – and it’s hard to argue with either his price or his prospects of victory.

There are three good reasons why Orb deserves to be a shorter price than his bare credentials might suggest. First, he probably is an even better horse than he looks on paper, with plenty of room for improvement. Second, he emerges from a Derby that was remarkably clean and trouble-free. Finally, the eight who will line up against him at Pimlico on Saturday are a much less imposing group than he beat at Churchill Downs and do not include the Derby’s second-, third-, or fourth-place finishers.

Orb is not the kind of Derby winner who won the race by default, or because others misfired, or because he ran an uncharacteristically explosive race that you want to see him repeat before believing in him. Every one of his races this year has been better than the last, and each time, he did what he had to do under his own steam. He can stalk and pounce or settle in and make a big run as circumstances dictate.

He leaves the impression that there’s more to him than we’ve seen, and the way he’s trained since the Derby suggests we’ll see yet another career-best performance Saturday. Shug McGaughey, his trainer, usually uses “nice” as a superlative, but he’s called Orb’s recent works “breathtaking” and “magnificent.” Be very afraid.

Nothing about the Derby left you thinking that any of his opponents would have won had the race and the traffic unfolded differently. A few ran so badly compared with their previous form that they deserve another chance, which is why Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday are back for another try.

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

For the horses who had clean trips, though, including returnees Mylute (fifth) and Oxbow (sixth), it’s going to take a severe reversal of form to put them ahead of Orb. Will Take Charge (eighth) did lose a stride or two when Verrazano stopped in front of him, but he did little running thereafter.

The absence of the 2-3-4 finishers from the Derby continues an unwelcome trend of such horses increasingly skipping the Preakness. If you’re not alive for the Triple Crown, the thinking goes, why not get the extra rest for the Belmont?

This may make sense on a case-by-case basis – Empire Maker, for example, needed the time to get over physical problems that may have cost him the Derby – but it’s a good thing that horses such as Afleet Alex (third in 2005), Curlin (third in 2007) and Shackleford (fourth in 2010) gave it another try in the Preakness and won two weeks after losing in Louisville, Ky.

The defections of Derby runners-up from the Preakness also has something to do with the perceived quality of the Derby winner. The only two recent Preaknesses to lack the 2-3-4 Derby finishers were those won most dominantly, by Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown in 2008. No one was eager to run back against either of them, and the same goes for Orb.

Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday strike me as the likeliest upsetters, if there is one, because they’re the only entrants to have fired a race in the same league as Orb’s Derby, whereas anyone else will have to take a very big step forward. It’s hard to have much confidence in either, however, as they may have peaked and may prove to be at their best going less than nine furlongs.

Departing is a nice, improving gelding but is taking a huge step up in class. The horses he just beat in the Illinois Derby all hadn’t done enough to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, so Orb beat 18 more accomplished horses in Louisville than Departing faced in Cicero, Ill.

So, let’s try them in that order: Orb, Goldencents, Itsmyluckyday, and Departing, with the added hope that Orb wins with the authority that leaves us talking about him, and not the spotty field that he beat in Baltimore, as the series moves on to Belmont.