What could have been a chance at the first Triple Crown in 35 years will instead come down to this for Baltimore County resident Stuart Janney III: a shot at redemption.
Always measured, Janney avoids soaring rhetoric when discussing racing. He's been around too long to get caught up in that. Publicly, he will say that having Orb — named today a 3-1 favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes — run again against Preakness winner Oxbow is "gratifying because it should help spruce up the Belmont and bring some excitement."
Plenty of people have clamored for the rematch, but there's just as much thirst for an answer to the question of whether Orb's Kentucky Derby win was a fluke or his Preakness floundering an illusion. Casual fans may turn away from the Triple Crown when it is lost, but those that care about the sport and have waited so long for clearly marked greatness dig to understand why it slips away.
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Janney just wants his horse to have a chance to run.
"We're hopeful he gets out onto a track he likes with a pace he likes and can run his race," he said. "We want to see him do that."
Orb, who drew the No. 1 post for the Preakness and could not overcome traffic, will once again have to work from the inside after drawing the No. 5 post position.
"I just didn't want to get down on the inside where maybe we might get stuck around the first turn, like we sort of did in the Preakness," trainer Shug McGaughey said Wednesday. "I said middle, and that's pretty much the middle."
As is the custom in racing, Orb's connections downplayed the unfortunate post-position draw and remained optimistic heading into the Preakness. For Janney, those days were like a dream.
He would make the 20-minute drive from his northern Baltimore County home to Pimlico — as he had done hundreds of times before — and head for Barn E, where Orb seemed unperturbed by the growing crowds coming to stare at him. Those that knew Janney, some well and others only in passing, would stop to chat about how magnificent the horse looked.
"It was a wonderful time," Janney said.
On the day of the race, as rain fell gently a few hours before post time, he lingered near stall No. 40 — home to the past three Triple Crown winners during their stays at Pimlico — talking with McGaughey about the stoic colt's chances. They felt good.
Then, the horses went to the gate. They broke, and Janney sensed trouble immediately.
"It's just horse racing," he said this week. "The post position turned out to be a bigger deal than we hoped because the pace turned out to be different than we thought."
Oxbow bolted to the lead, then slowed. The pack crept around the first turn, Oxbow cruising, and seams never seemed to open. Orb made one push going into the second turn — his legs carrying him gracefully with surprising power — before sensing traffic ahead. He backed off, never to challenge.
"The way the race went, the other jockeys were able to trap Orb a bit on the inside, and I do think the track was deepest on the inside," Janney said.
Orb will actually face a more crowded field in the Belmont, with 14 horses entered. Maneuvering should be made easier by the distance, though, as the mile-and-a-half race is the longest in the Triple Crown series.
Revolutionary, third at the Kentucky Derby, is the 9-2 second choice. He's one of five horses entered by trainer Todd Pletcher, who is responsible for the lone filly in the race, Unlimited Budget (8-1 odds), and for giving former Maryland rider Rosie Napravnik a chance to become the second woman to win the Belmont (or any Triple Crown race.)
Oxbow, trained by 77-year old D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by 50-year-old grandfather Gary Stevens, is the third choice at 5-1. Golden Soul, who shocked bettors by finishing second in the Derby, is sixth at 10-1.
Freedom Child is the most heralded newcomer to the Triple Crown, and at 8-1 is tied for the fourth choice. A son of one-time Maryland Stallion Malibu Moon — like Orb — Freedom Child finished 10th in the Wood Memorial but came back to easily win the Peter Pan by more than 13 lengths at Belmont.
Though Janney grew up outside of Baltimore and remains a Butler resident, Belmont is more of a home track for him. He spends most of his week in New York City, working as chairman of the Bessemer Trust, and has been heavily involved in New York racing. McGaughey, his private trainer, spends most of the year based at Belmont and has said that Orb is most comfortable at the track.
"He walks through the paddock every morning and trains over the racetrack every day, which he did as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old, except when we were in Florida," McGaughey told reporters Tuesday. "He's been here for three weeks, and I think it has to be a help not only mentally but being familiar with the footing as well. He's done well here and trained well here."
Janney also experienced his family's greatest racing heartbreak at Belmont, when their undefeated filly Ruffian broke down during a match race in 1975. Only a few years out of school and working in the federal government, Janney spent an anxious night with his parents and future wife, Lynn, waiting to see if Ruffian could be saved. She was euthanized and buried near the flagpole in the infield.
"I think it's appropriate she's there," Janney said. "I've always felt proud of that fact that when I sit down in the stands I'm looking out at her. I've appreciated that for a long period of time now."
Saturday afternoon he'll look out over the broad track to see whether his most successful colt to date can make another stirring run before a national audience by churning down the long stretch in first, at once easing the pain caused by poor Preakness luck and saddling it anew with thoughts of what could have been.