May 1, 2013

A celestial selection

LEO picks Orb to win Kentucky Derby 139

On his way to the Kentucky Derby, Orb turned in what may have been the two most powerful performances along the Derby Prep Trail, surging to towering triumphs in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby. And things have gone just as well for the son of Malibu Moon (hence the name Orb) since he arrived in Louisville.

Saturday night, trainer Shug McGaughey established what must be a Derby first, sending Orb over to the clubhouse to attend Opening Night racing at Churchill Downs — a brand new way of acclimating a thoroughbred racehorse to the noise and festive atmosphere the horse will see on Derby Day.

“That was the first time he’s ever done anything like that,” says McGaughey, who trained Orb over the winter in the peaceful confines of the Payson Park horse-training center in Florida. That’s out in the boonies west of Palm Beach, where, McGaughey says, the loudest noise is cows mooing next door.

Now: Night Racing!

“Kind of being relatively fresh getting here, he was on his toes, but he was on his toes the right way,” McGaughey says. “Now, I’m not saying he’s going to walk over there Saturday without the pony, but I think we’ll have enough of our bases covered so that he’ll go over there and be fine.”

McGaughey is a native Kentuckian who established his career at Churchill Downs in the early 1980s, then went on to New York as private trainer for the historic Phipps family racing stable, which includes Orb’s owners Stuart Janney III and his cousin Ogden Mills Phipps. Bold Ruler, Buckpasser and Personal Ensign are a few of the stars that ran for the Phipps family, along with Easy Goer, whom McGaughey saddled in the memorable 1989 Kentucky Derby, finishing second to Sunday Silence.

Anyhow, taking a horse to the paddock to “school” is not a new idea for the Derby, but it’s usually done, say, on a Wednesday afternoon at the track. Not in Disco Time. But fans may rest assured McGaughey hasn’t forgotten the traditional part of getting a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby.

On an overcast Monday morning, when the grandstand still smelled like Saturday night’s beer, but the scent of green grass and strong liniment (and fresh manure) wafted through the barn area, Orb came to the track ready to work. He stood calmly under his rider for a few minutes waiting for the track to open, then stepped out on the ancient Downs dirt to signal he is ready, willing and able to take on a field of 20 in the 139th Run for the Roses.

Working in company with another horse over a smoothly harrowed Churchill racing strip, Orb was full of run and straight to the task of working at speed. Around the final turn and down the long stretch to the wire, Orb clicked off a half-mile in 47-4/5 seconds. Turning for home, Orb and his workmate were together, but Orb soon accelerated away, like an eight-cylinder Cadillac, gliding home a final quarter in 23 seconds flat. You could see Orb’s exercise rider Jennifer Patterson wanted the horse to do some running but did not ask for extra. She sat chilly, and Orb did it all easily — and fast.

“I thought everything was smooth, I have no quarrels with anything,” McGaughey said after the workout. “Jen’s worked him every time, every work that he’s worked all winter — and she came back all smiles and said it felt like he was just galloping. So I’m going along with what she says. But I liked what I saw with my eyes, too.”

So did we, making Orb the Official LEO Pick to win the Kentucky Derby.

He’ll also be the favorite, and we’ll have plenty of company picking him. A handicapper can’t have it alone every year, as last year when we tabbed I’ll Have Another, all by our lonesome in this space: LEO Weekly — “Thank you sir, I’ll Have Another.” Orb will be the probable post-time favorite, maybe 5-1.

Another plus for Orb is jockey Joel Rosario, who has won four or five races almost every day at the end of the Keeneland meet and continued his pace at Churchill. Rosario is an excellent late-finishing rider, aboard a late-finishing horse.

What Happened to Verrazano?

A couple weeks ago, Verrazano was the unbeaten winner of the Wood Memorial, seen as the likely Kentucky Derby favorite and a fast-rising superstar. Now it’s all about Orb. Poor Verrazano doesn’t seem to have a friend left. It’s likely a case of the press finally growing weary of New York Wonder Horses, who haven’t done wonderfully well in the Kentucky Derby. And while Orb might not be as sensational as some (low Beyer Speed Figures, you know), he is based in New York, too.

All that stuff is hooey, anyhow. A horse doesn’t know who picks it. But he might know he’s something special.

“I think he’s a bit of a throwback to the older pedigrees,” McGaughey says. “It’s an old Phipps-Janney pedigree. Maybe a taller, lankier kind of horse than something that’s been through the sale, where they’ve tried to make them big through early exercise and that kind of stuff. When I look at him I look at a horse that’s kind of a throwback to old days.”

What “old days” means to some observers is a horse bred as much for stamina as speed.

“He’ll run a mile and a quarter, I just hope he runs it faster than the rest of them,” McGaughey says. “If he does, the dream will come true. If he doesn’t, we’ll pack up and go on and try somewhere else.”

An alternate theory

Of course, Orb doesn’t have to win. Horses of all odds can nab the Derby.

The real odds of picking the winner out of a 20-horse Derby field are 1 in 20. One might reasonably expect to pick a winner once every 20 years. (Which is why an expert is needed.)

Certainly, Verrazano could win. Revolutionary has backers who like his chances. Normandy Invasion has trained sharply at Churchill Downs. Palace Malice descends from the Derby-best Raise a Native sire line. Itsmyluckyday is a professional racehorse that will run his race and get his name called sometime.

We certainly don’t want to talk anyone off their Derby Horse. They might be right!

And for an alternate theory, we hand the mic to Dr. Harvey Diamond, a prominent horse owner and avid handicapper who only smiled when it was noted that this year’s Derby field has almost no deep distance blood in its pedigrees.

“That’s what I like about it!” Diamond says. “And there’s also not a lot of cheap speed in the race, which could set it up for a horse like Goldencents.”

Ah, Goldencents, the Santa Anita Derby winner, partly owned by Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

“In the past, there’d always be a bunch of speedballs who earned their way into the Derby by winning shorter races with big purses, and they’d all go for the lead and there’d be a terrific pace — cook each other off,” Diamond says. “But now, with the points system of qualifying, the emphasis is on the winners of longer races, and those are the horses that get in the race. A horse like Goldencents — who isn’t bred for distance, but can carry his speed if he’s not pressured — might be able to run right on or near the lead without being pressured every step.”

Interesting. And many Derbies have been won that way.

“That’s how War Emblem won it in 2002,” Diamond says. “Nobody went out there with him, and he led every step of the way.”

But that’s just one theory. You’ve also got the one that Revolutionary — who comes from behind and is handy at getting through tiny cracks in traffic — will be even handier with three-time Derby-winning rider Calvin Borel aboard. And did we mention attorney J.D.Raine dug up the fact that the “nick” of sire and dam in Black Onyx’s pedigree produces runners with the longest average-winning distance?

But that’s all analysis. Says here Orb will win it. And if there’s one horse that might fly down the stretch that nobody else has mentioned at all it’s Lines of Battle, who flies in from Ireland.

Make it:

Orb

Lines of Battle

Palace Malice

And good luck in the Kentucky Derby! 

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