Orb drew the least favorable starting position in the Preakness, post No. 1, but he can overcome it, especially given the complexion of the nine-horse field. Five contestants - Goldencents, Govenor Charlie, Itsmyluckyday, Oxbow and Titletown Five - like to race on or within a few lengths of the lead and the field could stretch out early, allowing Orb plenty of room to run as he settles behind an expected legitimate pace.
It's a far cry from drawing the rail in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, but the innermost post remains a slight concern. Orb will be the focus of other jockeys, who would love to pin down the heavy favorite when he looks to advance, and Joel Rosario needs to get the Derby winner off the inside path at some point.
Orb still proves best on Saturday. I believe he towers over his opponents and will win by open lengths.
Despite a five-race win streak, Orb doesn't inspire the same awe as Derby winners Barbaro, Big Brown or Smarty Jones, all overwhelming Preakness favorites in the last decade. Those horses ran fast from the get-go, but Orb is cut from a different cloth, failing to earn a BRIS Speed rating of 90 or better in his first five starts. He's the classic example of a rapidly-improving horse.
There are still horseplayers who want to believe that Orb is the same colt who received an 89 Speed rating in his 2013 debut, a one-length optional claiming win at Gulfstream Park on January 26. Or the fact that he ran 1 1/8 miles two seconds slower than the filly Dreaming of Julia, netting only a 97 Speed rating, when easily capturing the March 30 Florida Derby suggests mediocrity.
Those stats are meaningless because of Orb's development: he's become a powerful racehorse.
Trainer Shug McGaughey expressed the same sentiment Wednesday morning.
"What really surprises me is how he comes out of his races, not only mentally, but physically," the Hall of Famer said. "I looked at him just a second ago with the blanket off of him. Looking from behind, the sun was shining on him, and I was looking at a different horse than I saw a week ago and two weeks ago."
Orb is bigger and faster, and his recent workout -- a sharp half-mile breeze (:47) at Belmont Park on Monday that was accomplished with little effort -- signals his readiness. He's now earning Speed ratings worthy of a champion, generating a 111 for his 2 «-length Derby triumph.
The Derby featured a pace meltdown due to blazing early fractions (Orb rallied from 17th) and was run in the mud, but those circumstances didn't matter. Orb has proven that he can adapt to any scenario, winning behind fast and slow paces, on speed-favoring surfaces and from the rail post position, and his superiority will continue to show in the Preakness.
The race for second is wide open as seven horses appear viable. Titletown Five, the probable longest shot in the field, would be the only major surprise in the runner-up slot.
I will make a case for Oxbow, the only horse in the Derby close to the pace who was around at the end, finishing sixth. The hard-trying colt should be in perfect position turning for home.
The only time Oxbow didn't run well this year, a fifth in the Arkansas Derby, came when new jockey Gary Stevens took a hold at the start. Those tactics didn't work and Oxbow will be forwardly-placed in the Preakness, perhaps showing the way if he breaks running.
He offered a bold move to challenge leaving the far turn in the Derby, cornering well in every start this year, and a more realistic pace scenario Saturday should benefit him. Oxbow can hold for second.
Departing posted a good-looking score in the Illinois Derby, winning by more than three lengths after traveling wide on both turns, and rates as a very promising gelding for Al Stall Jr. But similar to Orb earlier this year, Departing may not be at his prime yet. He recorded a non-threatening third in his only previous outing against quality competition, the Louisiana Derby two starts back, and faces a serious class check on Saturday. I will include the late runner underneath in the exotics but expect to see more in the future.
Mylute is another closer to consider for a minor award. Runner-up in the Louisiana Derby two back, he came charging late for fifth in the Derby and shows a nice Speed rating pattern, with increasing numbers in his last seven starts. But quality concerns still remain given that he's benefited from unrealistically fast fractions in his last two starts and is zero-for-seven in stakes races. Mylute figures to be well-supported with Rosie Napravnik, who recorded her first win at Pimlico, but I'll just watch to see how he fares in Baltimore.
Will Take Charge experienced a troubled trip when forced to check in upper stretch of the Derby, so he's a candidate for a much-improved effort after a well-beaten eighth. But the two-week rest will be tricky for a colt who likes time between starts, receiving a seven-week break between his Rebel win and the Derby, and the Belmont Stakes would've provided an ideal five-week freshening. Will Take Charge offers little appeal on the short turnaround.
Itsmyluckyday was a leading three-year-old earlier this season, but he never fired over the wet track at Churchill Downs and will have to rebound Saturday. The main concern is his declining form in two consecutive starts since spectacular wins in the Gulfstream Park Derby and Holy Bull. I'm taking a negative view and will let the Eddie Plesa-trained colt ruin my exotic wagers.
Goldencents experienced a similar trip to Itsmyluckyday in the Derby, weakening to 17th as the 7-1 third choice, and supporters are hoping he can run back to his smart victory in the Santa Anita Derby two starts back (106 Speed rating). I respect his ability but question whether 1 3/16 miles is an optimal distance for the speedy colt.
Govenor Charlie figures to be up close with his speed and is in good hands with Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, a five-time Preakness winner. His last two wins are easy to like, but fitness (unraced since March 24 and bypassed the Derby after missing some training due to a foot issue in April) and inexperience (only three career starts) are significant drawbacks that make him impossible to recommend.
From a $100 bankroll in the Kentucky Derby, I netted a $102 profit (total return of $202) from $20 win and place bets on top choice Orb. The exotic tickets all missed when 34-1 longshot Golden Soul finished second.
Playing with house money Saturday, I will back Orb to win and take a swing at straight exactas over Oxbow and Departing:
$50 win Orb
$25 exactas: 1 over 4,6
Enjoy the Preakness!