Orb's Triple Crown season was the kind of gray you like to see in complex characters, say, on Mad Men or Lost: a little good, a little bad.
If Orb was an alcoholic drink you'd take one part brilliance, one part confusion and one part disappointment, dash with bitters, shake it in a tumbler and serve over ice. His performance, of late, is shaken.
His spring campaign was orchestrated to perfection. It wasn't just a campaign to ensure a stellar Kentucky Derby run, but more a run built to sustain the rigors of the Triple Crown, which, to some extent, was a rousing success. But then again, maybe not.
In two out of the last three races, Oxbow has taken the lead as perhaps the best three-year-old. Try telling that to anyone after the Kentucky Derby and they would have felt like a hot dog in a hamburger bun: out of place.
Oxbow's only fault was getting involved in that ludicrous pace situation in the Derby. Now he's beaten Orb twice head-to-head.
Listen to what Dale Romans, last year's Eclipse Award-winning trainer, said in a Churchill Downs release (h/t brisnet) about Orb after the Derby, "I think Orb is going to win the Preakness and I think he'll win the Triple Crown. I've never said that about another horse."
Suffice to say he'll never say that about another horse again. Horse racing has a way of humbling a man. Just look at my order of finish for this year's Belmont Stakes. Is there anything lower than humble pie? Cut me off a piece, please.
Orb won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby with the kind of assertion that led you to believe he'd move on to great things. This he did in the Kentucky Derby. But looking at how the Belmont Stakes played out, his Derby win is, in some ways, devalued.
Take Golden Soul, the Derby's second place-finisher. He surprised everyone at 34-1 odds when he came barreling down the stretch to defeat 18 horses on Derby Day. In the Belmont Stakes he had pace to run at, yet could only muster a ninth-place effort, this after skipping the Preakness.
Revolutionary, third in the Derby, also skipped the Preakness. He got the services of Belmont Park uber-jockey Javier Castellano, and mustered only a fifth-place finish.
These are not validating results for Orb. In the Derby he benefited from suicidal fractions on the front end that effectively towed with it some of the serious contenders, namely Oxbow, Palace Malice and even Verrazano.
Heading into the Preakness, the race was Orb's to lose, and the usually soft-spoken trainer, Shug McGaughey, was real high on his horse heading into the Preakness off his past breeze. As he noted to ESPN:
"I thought it was breathtaking [he said of the work]. For him to go off nice and relaxed in 24 and change and come home on his own the way he did, and gallop out the way he did, and drop his head and walk home, it sent cold chills up my back."
What he couldn't predict was how slow the pace would be in the Preakness. Oxbow got an easy lead and slowed down the pace, a pace that was several lengths slower than the Derby's. Oxbow cruised—and when it was game time, he cut it loose.
Closers like Orb loathe a front-runner with an easy lead. He could do no better than fourth that day. Thus began some head-scratching. Via Preakness.com:
“The pace was slower than I anticipated," said McGaughey. "I thought the pace would be quicker. I thought maybe they would speed it up a little bit but they didn’t. I still thought we would close into it, but it just wasn’t his day. He was just never real comfortable once he got down in there. I’m disappointed. I’ll probably be way more disappointed tomorrow but I know the game. It is highs and lows, probably more lows than highs. We had a great run two weeks ago."
So in a year where we were supposed to have a Triple Crown winner, the first in 35 years, on the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's 31-length beatdown in the 1973 Belmont no less, what we got was...well, not nothing, but close to it.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas committed his Oxbow to the Belmont, and it was only a matter of time before Orb would be committed as well, once he checked out, of course. Here was a nice rematch, a classic tilt.
The prognosticators came out in full support of Orb, and so too did the betting public, making him the 2-1 favorite. Oxbow was 10-1 and Palace Malice was 13-1. For the second straight race, Orb was the beaten favorite.
Speed held at Belmont Park, and Palace Malice and Oxbow used it to their advantage. Orb had no excuse. He had the speed to run into, he just didn't make his move early enough.
“It’s been fun," said McGaughey after the race. "I’ve got no problems with anything. Everything’s fine with me. I just wish we had showed a little better performances in the Preakness and the Belmont.”
The book isn't written on Orb yet. He still may prove to be his generation's best, or he may simply prove to be a pretty darn good horse who won the one race for which everyone hungers.
On his epitaph it will read: Kentucky Derby winner. That's how Orb's season will ultimately be remembered.