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BALTIMORE — If the Kentucky Derby is a 22-footer with three defenders in your face, then the Preakness is the free throw. If the Belmont Stakes is the par-five against the wind, out of the sand, and over the water, the Preakness is the 12-foot putt without any twists or turns.
The forecast for the Preakness Stakes today at Pimlico is another thunderous blast of Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, followed by increasing gusts of Triple Crown hype.
The Derby didn't slow trainer Shug McGaughey's colt. He won by 2 ½ lengths — and ran like he was good enough to win by twice that. The Belmont Stakes remains a significant hiccup to clear in three weeks in New York. But if Orb is as powerful as he appeared in Louisville, the eight Preakness challengers should not stop him.
"It's the easiest one for these horses," trainer Bob Baffert said. "You've won the Derby and your horse is peaking."
"History will bear me out that the Derby winner brings the cream to the top," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "When he comes back in here, he's the one to beat."
The morning line says that too. The record book repeats it. Many are predicting that Orb will race as no worse than an even money bet when the Pimlico starting gates pop open at 6:20 p.m. today.
Lukas has won this race five times. So has Baffert, who celebrated his first Preakness victory with Silver Charm in 1997. The performance of the Derby winner in the Preakness over the last 16 years is more difficult to knock than Tim Duncan — eight firsts, four seconds, one third.
"To win the Derby, your horse is peaking," Baffert said. "He's doing great. You don't have to do a whole lot with him for two weeks. Just keep him healthy, alive, and eating well, and they'll run a big race."
McGaughey does not disagree. He appears to be as relaxed, confident, and eager at Pimlico as he was at Churchill Downs. McGaughey has worked his horse once since the Derby, and Orb moved so beautifully while covering a half-mile in 47 seconds that it gave the trainer chills.
The man is a Hall of Famer. I have watched McGaughey train talented and precocious horses for nearly three decades, champions like Personal Ensign and Easy Goer. I cannot remember hearing Shug McGaughey say that one of his horses gave him chills. Not one time.
"I got them too," Lukas said. "Orb's work the other day would make you not want to enter."
"He's got tremendous acceleration," Baffert said. "I think he's a really good horse. His stride, I've watched him work. It's beautiful, the motion, just the way he strides out."
But Lukas has entered — three horses, Derby also-rans Will Take Charge and Oxbow as well as newcomer Titletown Five, owned by Paul Hornung. Baffert is here with Governor Charlie, a talented but untested colt that skipped the Derby because Baffert didn't believe he was ready for stronger competition.
Don't forget trainer Doug O'Neill. He won the Preakness last year with I'll Have Another — and he's chasing a repeat with Goldencents, the colt that includes Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino in his ownership group. Goldencents finished 17th in the Derby, but O'Neill never blinked about racing Orb here.
Orb has trained well. Muscles ripple across his vibrant body. If Orb is as formidable as even opposing trainers have suggested, how do they expect to stop him in the Preakness?
"You change the surface [it's considered firmer], you shorten the race [by a sixteenth of a mile], you change the configuration [tighter turns], and you put him in the one hole," Lukas said. "Those are things he'll have to overcome."
"If everything is normal, he's going to be extremely tough to beat," O'Neill said.
"These races … a lot of time the best horse doesn't win. If he encounters any kind of traffic issues, who knows?"
All three of these trainers say Orb is a superb horse, a legitimate Triple Crown threat. Not one is ready to surrender. That's the way it is supposed to work. Nobody steps aside during the Triple Crown.
McGaughey would not want them to give an inch. There are no easy Triple Crowns, as the 35-year gap since Affirmed won the last one confirms.
"There's a lot of ways you can lose, as we all know," McGaughey said. "Freaky things happen. You hope he doesn't get in any trouble. You hope he handles the track. You hope he handles the kick back of the dirt. You hope he handles the day."
"If he does all that, I would have to think it was going to take a pretty good horse to beat him."
It always does to beat the Kentucky Derby winner here.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and WDRB-TV of Louisville. Rick Bozich is a columnist for WDRB.