We're not going to lie - we haven't been happier after a race than we were after Orb won the Derby, and that includes some races where we had significant cashes. Orb's dominant win was the public validation that Shug deserved after decades of being known to everyone in racing as a great trainer but fairly anonymous to the rest of the sports world. That and the horse appears to be quite talented. Orb obviously wasn't a fluke winner a la Giacomo or Mine That Bird, nor was he a fortunate winner like Super Saver, Funny Cide or War Emblem, all of which benefited from a fortuitous confluence of circumstances. His win was the best Derby performance since Big Brown's in 2008, and was probably even better than that since Big Brown beat a class of horses that, frankly, stunk.
But as we all know, horses that look like world-beaters in the Derby don't always take the Preakness. Fusaichi Pegasus looked similarly invincible in 2000 and lost to Red Bullet. Monarchos ran a sub-2 minute Derby in 2001 and finished 6th in the Preakness. Barbaro...well, moving right along. And Street Sense got out-and-out beaten in the final furlongs by Curlin. Now that was a stellar crop of horses and a great race (jump to 1:45):
So is another upset in store for Saturday? Let's count down the runners from worst to first, with the assumption that it's a fast track at Pimlico.
We're Not Seeing It
9. Titletown Five. Unlike a lot of the recent editions of the Preakness, this year's race isn't full of horses that didn't run in the Derby and have absolutely no hope in the Preakness. We have only three new shooters in Saturday's race, and this is the only one that clearly doesn't belong. After breaking his maiden, he ran second in something called the Gazebo Stakes, followed by a horrible finish in the Louisiana Derby and a non-threatening fourth in the Derby Trial. We also guarantee that this horse is going to get a lot more play than people think, between D. Wayne Lukas being his trainer and his owner being Paul Hornung.
8. Oxbow. While he did run 6th in the Derby, we can't help thinking that was simply a default finish on a day where the unforeseen early pace fried a few horses and the slop ruined the chances of a couple of others. He was never in contention, never really threatened the top 5 finishers, and has pretty much stagnated since winning the Lecomte earlier this year.
Others Like Them, We Don't
7. Itsmyluckyday. Okay, we got suckered in at the Derby. But we're not biting again. At the end of the day we have a horse that seems to love Gulfstream and run so-so at all other tracks and probably peaked back in February. And he's gotten slower as the distances have gotten longer, which is hardly a surprise given his breeding. We do think that he plays an important part in the race though, because we wouldn't be surprised to see him chasing...
5. Departing. The likely second or third choice in the race, he exits a win in the Illinois Derby and only has one defeat in his 5 career starts. His Illinois Derby win is pretty much irrelevant to us, as the race did not contain a single horse that was on the Triple Crown trail. It's his third place finish in the Louisiana Derby that is more interesting to us, as he ran okay, but was passed late by both Revolutionary and Mylute and was almost passed by Golden Soul, the Derby runner-up. An optimist would say that makes the Louisiana Derby a key race and his chances should be upgraded. We're more pessimistic - we see no reason he can turn the tables on Mylute, and since Revolutionary and Golden Soul were beaten somewhat handily by Orb, we don't see how he closes the theoretical gap, especially since his breeding on the sire's side is pretty sprint-oriented. And he's going to be about 9-2. We're looking elsewhere.
4. Mylute. We still don't know what to make of this horse. Excellent jockey Rosie Napravenik wisely turned him back into a stone closer in the Derby and he rallied to finish 5th, beaten about a length for second. He ran a good "Sheets" number in the race, meaning while taking into account trip, etc., he was probably the second-best horse in the race. That said, he was no threat to the winner and still strikes us as a horse that is more of a closing sprinter than a router - his father was two-time BC Sprint winner Midnight Lute and his dam is by sprinter Valid Expectations. With a little less pace to run at in this race, he's going to be up against it if he's too far back, but we're not sure he has enough staying power to run with the front of the pack early and hold off the closers late. He's got a shot to hit the board, but we think the win slot is highly unlikely.
In With a Chance
3. Will Take Charge. The three horses that have gotten the most discussion out of the Derby are the winner, Normandy Invasion (we'll get to him in the Belmont preview), and this guy, who had a horrible trip. Take a look at the overhead shot at about the 0:43 mark; he's the horse in the white silks directly to the inside of Orb:
At you'll see, he comes to basically a dead stop when they hit the top of the stretch, as tiring Verrazano was directly in his path and caused his jockey to slam on the brakes. We don't think he would have caught the winner - he was moving inside of him, remember - but he likely would have held on for a spot in the money. Now couple this with the fact that Will Take Charge clearly prefers a fast track to a wet track - he flopped in his lone prior start on a sloppy surface, and his prior two runs on a fast track were both wins - and that he's well-bred for the distance, and gets a bump by going from jockey Jon Court to Mike Smith, and his chances look even better. That said, he still has a lot of ground to make up on the Derby winner, as he still hasn't cracked a 3-digit speed figure in his 8-race career.
2. Govenor Charlie. He's only had three starts to date but the last two were quite good - a strong maiden win followed by a dominating performance in the Sunland Derby. He was bound for the Derby until he came up with a foot bruise a week before the race, and trainer Bob Baffert decided to point him to the Preakness instead. After a good workout on Monday, he's back on the Triple Crown trail with we think a chance to do something at a price.
Now we'll acknowledge there are a bunch of issues with this horse - he hasn't faced a single top-level horse yet, his breeding does have a fair amount of sprint influence (like Mylute, he's out of Midnight Lute), and he did have an injury significant enough to knock him out of the Derby. But there are a lot of positives on the other side of the ledger; the presence of Baffert (who's won this race 5 times), a solid jockey in Martin Garcia (who won this race with Baffert on Lookin at Lucky in '10), good dam side breeding (his granddam is Hall of Famer Silverbulletday), a good workout to show he's healed, and the potential for a lot of improvement since it's his 4th career start. And most importantly: the price. He's 15-1 on the morning line and we think he'll be the second or third longest shot on the board. We feel that if anyone's going to turn the tables on the winner, it's either going to be a horse with a bad trip in the Derby (Will Take Charge) or a newbie that makes The Proverbial Leap. At 20-1 or so, he's definitely worth the gamble.
1. Orb. Simply stated there's no reason to go against him. The track condition doesn't matter as he has dominant wins on the slop and dirt. He closed from the back of the pack to win last race but showed in the Florida Derby he can lay close if needed which is likely the case here. He has a great trainer and the hottest jockey in America. And he's likely still improving, as evidenced by his workout earlier in the week that left Shug McGaughey "breathless." When a trainer who eschews hyperbole is speaking in such reverent tones, we pay attention. We think it's all setting up for a neat rematch in the Belmont with Revolutionary and Normandy Invasion coupled with a Triple Crown on the line, and are very excited to see him run on Saturday. We think he improves yet again and runs away with the race.
How to Play the Race
Orb is going to be around 4-5, and while we think he's going to win, it's hard to argue that 4-5 is great value. We can see saver bets on Will Take Charge and Govenor Charlie if they're over 10-1 and 20-1 respectively, but would avoid most other horses in the win slot. The better idea is exotics: either keying Orb over those two horses and Mylute in triples and superfectas, or use Orb as a single in multi-race bets.
Good luck to everyone and enjoy the Preakness!