On Monday afternoon, the strapping colt co-owned by Baltimore County resident Stuart Janney III, had his first taste of Maryland’s turf. He walked off a large transport van at about 3:20 p.m., striding past the assembled media toward Pimlico Race Course’s Barn E. There, he has been assigned stall number 40, which housed all three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s during their trips to Baltimore.
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To reach a much-coveted strip of grass, he and exercise rider Jenn Patterson slipped through an opening in a white fence adorned with yellow signs commemorating the 11 horses who have completed the Derby, Preakness and Belmont trifecta.
There, not far from Secretariat's marker, he dropped his head and sniffed the ground. He ate for 40 minutes, at times shaking out his limbs as if loosening tight muscles.
Earlier in the morning he'd turned in a stunning breeze at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., confirming to Patterson and trainer Shug McGaughey that he had not only bounced back fully from the Derby but improved.
“Everything he does, he learns from,” Patterson said. “That's what makes him special.”
After eating, Orb consented to being led to his new stall. A claustrophobic horse, he prefers to hang his head out into the walkway and watch people flitter through the barn.
McGaughey brought Orb to Baltimore early so that the athletic horse — he appears somewhat gangly but moves smoothly — could get accustomed to his surroundings. The Hall of Fame trainer has not run a horse in Maryland’s signature race since 1989, when his Easy Goer finished second to Sunday Silence by a nose in what many consider to be the most exciting Preakness of all time. He’d also had only one Kentucky Derby entrant since Easy Goer, despite a career spent caring for Janney and cousin Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps’ well-bred horses, and admitted that the long layoff gave him perspective.
Orb crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs two-and-a-half lengths ahead of the field, leaving McGaughey with a stunned look on his face when cameras panned to him. Since then, the trainer has grown accustomed to the spotlight brought by having the Derby winner.
“You can’t believe how proud I am,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be standing here right now. I couldn’t be a happier guy. I’m excited to be here today.”
Orb’s reputation began growing at Churchill Downs the Monday before the Kentucky Derby, when the colt breezed four furlongs in 47.80. The run looked effortless and made Orb the talk of Louisville — and the morning-line favorite.
And the Monday before the Preakness, the 3-year-old son of former Maryland stallion Malibu Moon again turned in a promising breeze — in which he's basically allowed to run without much guidance from the rider. Going a half a mile, this time in 47.18, the colt’s run was described as “breathtaking” and “nothing short of magnificent” by McGaughey.
“For him to go off nice and relaxed in 24 and change and come home on his own the way he did,” McGaughey said, “and gallop out the way he did, and drop his head and walk home, it sent cold chills up my back.”
Orb will walk the shed row today, then return to the track Wednesday.
Racing analysts continue to say that the only thing stopping Orb from taking the second leg of the Triple Crown would be a failure to bounce back from the grueling Derby run over a wet track surface many have described as “peanut butter.” McGaughey said he became tense last week when rain continued dropping on the track at Belmont, forcing him to be conservative with Orb. Any concerns were assuaged when Orb made his run, which he completed without the company of another horse to challenge him.
Patterson, upon hearing how fast she’d gone, cursed herself softly, fearing she’d overworked the horse.
McGaughey was asked if he thought his colt had gone too fast.
“No, not at all, because of the way that he did it,” he told reporters in New York. “I think it’s a tribute to the way he came out of the Derby, and to come back and be able to have a work like that and do it the way he did it. ... I couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I’d probably have been a little bit disappointed if he’d gone out there and gone 52, but right now I’m on cloud nine. The way he was striding today, the way he held his leads through the lane, I thought was just ... I thought it was spectacular.”