BALTIMORE — Growing up, Kentucky Derby winner Orb was just another horse who fit in with the crowd.
Never caused problems. Never raised a ruckus. Never got sick or hurt while frolicking in the fields of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., with his pals, or when he was learning how to be a racehorse at Niall Brennan’s farm in Ocala, Fla. Did everything asked of him.
“A model citizen,” says Claiborne Farm manager Bradley Purcell.
Brennan remembers the colt did everything right. “His workouts, his focus, he didn’t fret about things, he was enjoying it,” he says.
And wouldn’t you know it: In his racing debut, last Aug. 18 at Saratoga, Orb leaped in the air as the gates opened and trailed by 14 lengths early on in the seven-furlong race. He made a remarkable recovery, though, and finished third, just 1¼ lengths behind the winner.
“He was so far behind,” recalled his jockey, Joel Rosario. “He made up a lot of ground, and I was impressed. My agent told me, ‘maybe he’s going to be a nice horse.’”
A few more growing pains followed, like smacking his head in the starting gate in his second race. But a two-month break allowed trainer Shug McGaughey to work out the colt’s gate issues, and by his fourth start, Orb had found the winner’s circle — a two-length victory at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.
He hasn’t lost since, winning three times at Gulfstream Park, including the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, building confidence and gaining experience along the way. And then came the ultimate moment: charging down the stretch over a sloppy track and winning the Derby by 2½ lengths.
“I wish I could tell you back then he looked like a horse who could win the Kentucky Derby,” Purcell said. “He had good size, and strength. All we do is let them grow and Mother Nature does the rest.”
So far, so good, and a win over eight rivals in Saturday’s $1 million Preakness would send Orb back home to New York for the Belmont Stakes on June 8 with a chance to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I don’t think about (the Triple Crown), because I do,” McGaughey said. “I try to block it out, but if you’re in this position, anybody would think about it. It’s a thrilling thought, but we’ve got to get by Saturday. If we do, the next three weeks will be a lot of fun.”
Orb seems to be enjoying it, too, appearing cool and calm around the Pimlico stakes barn in the mornings while hundreds of people are milling around, many angling for the best photo op in cramped quarters. He was the same way at Churchill Downs.
“He’s pretty laid back,” McGaughey said.