Preakness First, then Magic - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the May 18, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Is this the year? Is this the one that will break the streak of near misses that has now stretched to 35 years, the longest drought ever between Triple Crown winners since Sir Barton claimed the first crown in 1919?

When assessing the chances of Triple Crown success most people debating the potential of a Kentucky Derby winner go straight to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) . The pivotal question is often this: Can this horse handle the 11⁄2-mile “Test of the Champion” on Big Sandy? In a Thoroughbred population of predominately precocious speed, the question is a legitimate one. Not many breeding programs have the goal of producing a horse that can stay 12 furlongs. Besides the Belmont, North American tracks only offer four other graded stakes at that distance on dirt or synthetics—the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II), the Cougar Handicap (gr. III), the Greenwood Cup (gr. III), and the Tokyo City Cup (gr. III).

Also since 1955, 18 horses that were able to capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) fell short in the Belmont at margins of between eight lengths (1989, Sunday Silence behind Easy Goer) and a nose (1998, Real Quiet behind Victory Gallop).

Veteran jockey super-agent Ron Anderson, however, sees this Triple Crown a bit differently. Anderson, who represents Orb’s pilot, Joel Rosario, said he believes the Preakness is the Derby winner’s greatest obstacle.

“The run (Orb) put in was breathtaking,” Anderson said soon after the Derby. “Listen, this horse has the chance to win all three races. If he gets by the Preakness, this could be it. He is a natural 11⁄2-mile horse.”

The challenge with the Preakness, said Anderson, is that it’s run only two weeks after the Derby.

“It’s the toughest one for me,” he said. “A lot of horses go flat in the second race.”

Anderson has had some experience with near misses. He managed Gary Stevens when the rider hit two out of three in 1995 with Thunder Gulch (Kentucky Derby and Belmont) and again in 1997 with Silver Charm (Kentucky Derby and Preakness). Anderson also managed the late Chris Antley when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on Charismatic in 1999, then finished third in the Belmont.

Trainer Shug McGaughey seems almost giddy about how Orb is doing heading into the Preakness. During a video interview shown by the New York Racing Association, the trainer must have used the words “thrilled” or “spectacular” about a half-dozen times.

“It sent cold chills up my back,” he said about Orb’s work May 13, going a half-mile in :47.18 at Belmont Park. “From the eighth pole to the wire when I looked down and saw :11 and change, with the way he was going, I was surprised. It is a tribute to the way he came out of the Derby. The way he did it, he wouldn’t have blown out a match afterward. Horses that are supposed to be good horses do things like that. Right now I’m on Cloud Nine.”

McGaughey said he also sees more challenges with the Preakness because of having to relocate the stable temporarily.

“We have to go to a new barn. We have to pack up and do it all over again,” he said. “I was glad to get back to Belmont where he is comfortable and I’m comfortable.”

Clear the Preakness obstacle, and Anderson said he sees no reason that Orb can’t sweep the series.

“He is bred to run that far, and he is in the right hands,” Anderson said. “Maybe this is the year for the magic.”

(Read more about Ron Anderson on page 28.)

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