The final pieces are in place for Kentucky Derby winner Orb to take the second step toward winning the Triple Crown.
Should the imposing colt win Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, only the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later would stand in the way of a feat last achieved in 1978. Orb is the even-money favorite on the Pimlico morning line but likely to be a shorter price when the gates spring open.
Weekend racing also features Group 1 events in Singapore and Japan, graded stakes in California and New York and, of course, stakes-packed action on both Friday and Saturday in the lead-up to the Preakness.
Orb is a Malibu Moon colt who has been patiently but confidently managed by old-hand trainer Shug McGaughey. He was bred and is owned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable -- some of the bluest of blue blood in the American branch of the "Sport of Kings."
The colt's bloodlines reflect generations of careful planning for improvement of the breed. A victory in the Peakness, with the potential for a Triple Crown champion, would be a popular reward for stewardship of racing's stars.
The Kentucky Derby victory was the first ever for Janney, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, the current master of the family's historic stable, and for McGaughey, who has trained for both men and, as with Orb, for them jointly.
"I think we'd all say that we're very glad we were together at the Kentucky Derby and lucky enough to win it with a horse that we happened to own together," Janney said Thursday while visiting Orb's barn. "I said after the race, 'Shug was very clever to do that so that he didn't have one owner that was ecstatic and another owner who was less than ecstatic.'"
Orb will start from the No. 1 gate at Pimlico on Saturday with eight rivals trying to deny him the second jewel in American racing's Triple Crown, with the Belmont Stakes to follow in three weeks' time. Should he prevail, Orb would be on the cusp of becoming only the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Since that year, 12 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness only to fall short in the Belmont. The last two, Big Brown in 2008 and I'll Have Another in 2012, had particularly poignant stories. Big Brown was pulled up early in the stretch run and I'll Have Another was scratched the day before the race with a career-ending injury.
The repeated disappointments have denied racing a Triple Crown hero to follow, although stars like the super mare Zenyatta have partially filled the void and rivalries like that between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer have provided exciting alternate story lines. Easy Goer denied Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid by beating him in the Belmont Stakes.
Orb's rivals on Saturday include Mylute, who finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, Oxbow, who finished sixth in the Run for the Roses, Will Take Charge (8th), Itsmyluckyday (15th) and Goldencents (17th). Each of them had an excuse -- or two -- in the Derby and could run much better against a smaller field. The weatherman is calling for sunny skies at Pimlico on Friday and no more than a few showers on Saturday so track condition is unlikely to be an issue.
"I think if he goes over and runs his race, I'm quietly confident that he'll be tough to beat," McGaughey said after giving Orb a light workout Thursday morning. "It's just like I was at the Derby. I was quietly confident all week that he was going to run his race and if that was good enough, it would be good enough. I feel the same this time."
Elsewhere around the world's ovals (and other configurations):
Friday's program features the $500,000, Grade II Black-Eyed Susan with nine 3-year-old fillies set to try 9 furlongs on the main track. Emollient is the 9-5 morning-line favorite off her gate-to-wire victory in the Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland over the all-weather surface. Fiftyshadesofhay comes east after a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks for trainer Bob Baffert. The local favorite is Walkwithapurpose, a Sagamore Farms homebred who has not lost in five starts at Laurel Park but settled for third when stepping up to graded stakes company in the Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct last month.
Friday's $300,000, Grade III Pimlico Special should be interesting, with a variety of running styles in the seven-horse field. Eighttofasttocatch has been well in front in his last two starts with one win to show for it. Last Gunfighter has rolled from off the pace to win five straight at Aqueduct and Belmont. And Richard's Kid is still trying to get things back on course after last year's stay in Dubai.
The $100,000 The Very One Stakes, a 5-furlongs turf dash for fillies and mares, drew an overflow field of 14 with two also-eligibles. Sweet Cassiopeia is the morning-line favorite off five straight wins but drew gate No. 13.
The $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint has eight starters with Bridgetown and local favorite Ben's Cat the morning-line picks. The former is making his first start since finishing last of 14 in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall. Ben's Cat has won 20 of his 30 starts, mostly on the Maryland circuit and never can be ruled out. He won this race in 2011 but was fifth last year.
Saturday's racing in support of the 138th Preakness includes four graded stakes and three others.
The $300,000, Grade II Longines Dixie Stakes at 9 furlongs on the turf has a jam-packed field of 13, many of them with credentials. Optimizer, Willcox Inn, Imagining, Doubles Partner and Swift Warrior all are posted at single-digit odds in the morning line.
The $150,000, Grade III Maryland Sprint Handicap drew 10. The morning-line choice, Sage Warrior, drew the outside gate as he steps up in company while trying to win his fourth in a row.
Samitar is the oddsmaker's 5-2 favorite in the $150,000, Grade III Gallorette Handicap, a 1 1/16-miles turf test for fillies and mares. Samitar, one of two in for trainer Chad Brown, won the Grade I Garden City Stakes at Belmont last fall in her first U.S. start but hasn't visited the winner's circle in three intervening trips.
Fillies and mares go 1 1/16 miles on the main track in the $150,000, Grade III Allaire DuPont Distaff Stakes with seven set to face the starter. Summer Applause, Brushed by a Star and Moon Philly are the favorites. Summer Applause and Brushed by a Star are solid graded stakes performers but have something to prove in terms of winning. Moon Philly has won two straight but takes a class jump.
The British racing establishment has come up with a clever way to bridge the gap between the two final jewels of America's Triple Crown -- the June 30 Epsom Oaks and the July 1 Epsom Derby. While Orb tries to get by eight rivals in Saturday's Preakness, the final fields for the "original" Oaks and Derby were taking shape this week on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
On Thursday at York, Libertarian sprung a big surprise in the Group 2 Betfred Dante Stakes, rolling from well back under strong handling by William Buick to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Trading Leather. Indian Chief was third. Libertarian is a big New Approach colt who celebrated his actual third birthday only Monday. He won his first start despite racing greenly, then was fourth in the Classic Trial at Sandown when he was muddled out to the center of the course in traffic. "He's a big, backward animal and has taken a lot of time and has done nothing but improve," said Karl Burke, husband of trainer Elaine Burke. His price dropped appropriately on British books for the Derby -- and also for the far-distant St Leger. Trading Leather now will point to the French Derby rather than Epsom.
On the Oaks front, Liber Nauticus, with Ryan Moore up for Sir Michael Stoute, came from off the pace to win Wednesday's Group 3 Tattersalls Musidora Stakes at York by 1 1/2 lengths from Romantic Settings. Woodland Aria was third. Liber Nauticus, an Irish-bred daughter of Azamour, now is 2-for-2.
French raider Dalkala landed Thursday's Group 2 Betfred Middleton Stakes at York, advancing smoothly through the final quarter mile to edge Ambivalent by 1 length. Trainer Alain Royer-Dupre said the winner might return for the Yorkshire Oaks although "maybe she is not quite that level."
Thirteen are set for Saturday's 1-mile, Group 1 JLT Lockinge Stakes at Newbury. Among the market leaders are Declaration of War, Cityscape and Farhh. Declaration of War, a 4-year-old War Front colt, has won five of six starts for Aidan O'Brien, including four in a row but steps up in class. Cityscape, a 7-year-old son of Selkirk, is a tested and well-traveled veteran Juddmonte Farms homebred. He is making his first start since finishing second to Excelebration in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Champions Day last October. Farhh, a 4-year-old son of the German stallion Gonbarda, represents Godolphin Racing and finished second in his last four races in 2012 -- chasing home the likes of Moonlight Cloud, Nathaniel and, twice, Frankel.
Sunday is Kranji's big day in the international sun with the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup and the Group 1 KrisFlyer Sprint on tap.
The KrisFlyer is the fourth leg of the 2013 Global Sprint Challenge, which offers a US$1 million bonus to a horse which can win three legs in three different countries. The KrisFlyer has an 11-horse field with representation from Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Russia and South Africa joining five locals. The winner will be taking down his first leg in the GSC, however, as none of the previous winners has journeyed to Kranji although Irish runner Balmont Mast was second in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, the third leg. He drew No. 2 gate and trainer Edward Lynam called that "perfect." Aussie entrant Bel Sprinter finished third behind the now-retired Black Caviar in the TJ Smith at Randwick last month and will start from gate No. 10. Dasher Go Go was fifth behind Lord Kanaloa in the Grade 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen, the second leg of the GSC. Assistant trainer Keiichiro Yasuda said that is "not very good" for his chances.
Thirteen are in for the Cup, with likely favorite Red Cadeaux drawn No. 7. Red Cadeaux comes off a closing second-place finish behind Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup and assistant trainer Robin Trevor-Jones said the gate is fine. "I was actually hoping for anything between 4 and 6," Trevor-Jones said. "But I'll take 7. It's not too far off. Can't really complain, can I?" German runner Pastorius was installed No. 11 but trainer Mario Hofer said, "It doesn't really matter. Pastorius has won the German Derby from the outside, which was barrier No. 15." Hunter's Light drew No. 10. The Hong Kong duo of Dan Excel and Military Attack, both coming off Group 1 wins at home, got stalls No. 1 and No. 4 respectively. "They are very good draws for both horses," trainer John Moore said.
Sunday's Group 1 Yushun Himba, or Japanese Oaks, drew a full field of 18 runners. This is the second leg of the Japanese filly Triple Crown and the field includes the winner of the first leg, Oka Sho. It will be the first time any of these fillies has attempted the 2,400-meters distance but trainer Takahisa Tezuka said he is confident the Tokyo course will suit Oka Sho. "A course with a long straight suits her because of her racing style," he said. "She ran well at Hanshin so Tokyo should be good for her. She doesn't have a problem settling so I don't think the distance will be an issue for her." The Oaks race record is held by Gentildonna, who was clocked in 2:23.6 in winning last year's edition by 5 lengths en route to the filly Triple Crown, as well as the Japan Cup in the autumn and Japanese Horse of the Year honors.
Six are set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Vagrancy Handicap for fillies and mares at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Spectacular Sky is the narrow morning-line pick while coming off a second-place showing in the Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March. With Great Pleasure comes off a victory in the Grade II Ruffian Handicap at Aqueduct. Glorious View steps up from the allowance ranks for trainer Bill Mott. Miss d'Oro finished second in the Grade II Distaff Handicap at the Big A last time out in her first stakes try.
Seven are set for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Marjorie L. Everett Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track. More Chocolate runs right back after a fifth-place finish in the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Before that, she won the Grade II La Canada and finished second in the Grade I Santa Margarita. This is her first time on the all-weather surface. Lady of Fifty has been competitive in local graded stakes. Sister Kate upset the Santa Lucia Stakes in her last outing, beating, among others, Maker or Breaker, who is back for more. The race is named for the former owner of Hollywood Park, who died last year at age 90. Hollywood Park itself will die at the end of this year, to be redeveloped into commercial and residential properties.