Orb is confirmed for the Belmont Stakes after a sharp work in company at Belmont on Sunday, joining Oxbow and what might be as many as many as 13 other starters in the final leg of the Triple Crown — neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness winner is scaring anyone away. Of the two, history suggests Oxbow is more likely to win — in the 21 times that the Derby and Preakness winners have met again in the Belmont, the Preakness winner has come out on top nine times, the Derby winner five, and the last time that happened was in 1984, when Swale redeemed himself after a historically bad Preakness loss (one that’s only been matched by Orb). Derby-Preakness winner exactas aren’t too common either, as Steven Crist points out in his discussion of Derby-Preakness winner rematches:
Only twice [since 1973] have the winners of the first two legs accounted for the Belmont exacta: Tabasco Cat-Go For Gin in 1994 (that exacta paid $19.20), and Hansel-Strike the Gold ($39.20) in 1991.
In recent years, the Belmont has been a rewarding race for longshot players, with bombs galore. The upcoming edition promises to keep the payouts up.
Last time a sub even-money Derby winner failed to hit the board in the Preakness? Not in 20 years or more? Anyone got the answer?
Swale was the answer. The 1984 Kentucky Derby winner, running second for much of the Preakness to pacesetter Fight Over (who held on for third), failed to kick in the stretch and finished seventh as the 4-5 favorite, beaten seven lengths by Gate Dancer (fifth in the Kentucky Derby*). Steven Crist, reporting for the New York Times, described Swale’s stunning defeat as:
the worst by any odds-on favorite in the history of the Preakness and the worst by any favorite since First Landing finished ninth in 1959.
No excuses were made for Swale, who would win the Belmont Stakes. “It was the consensus of most of us in the barn,” the colt’s groom Michael Klein wrote in his memoir, Track Conditions:
that Swale was running the race only because the Preakness was a jewel in the Crown, and to fulfill a theoretical obligation, he had to make a showing. The last jewel — the Belmont Stakes — was much more to his taste, both in terms of distance and quality of racing surface.
We’ll find out in a little less than three weeks, if Orb starts in the Belmont, whether the same can be said of him.
Below, Preakness winners and beaten Kentucky Derby winners, 1984-2013:
Preakness winners 1984-2013, where they finished in the Kentucky Derby, and their Preakness odds / Kentucky Derby winners, where they finished in the Preakness, and their Preakness odds / * = Preakness post-time favorite
Worth noting — Oxbow is the highest-priced Preakness winner of the past 30 years, confirming that the second leg of the Triple Crown hasn’t been the best race to look for longshots (the Belmont, though, is another matter).
*Fourth, actually, but the eccentric colt was disqualified and placed fifth for interference. It was the first DQ in Kentucky Derby history.
An essential part of Kentucky Derby winner Orb’s origin story is that he almost didn’t exist. His dam, Lady Liberty, seemed a subpar producer after three foals, only one a winner. Ogden Phipps wanted to sell. Others within Phipps Stable and Claiborne Farm thought the Unbridled mare deserved another shot, and so Lady Liberty visited Malibu Moon. The result was “pretty conventional,” until it wasn’t: “Now that it’s happened you look at that mare, you’re, ‘We knew you had that in you.’” Lucky Liberty, whose stall door now boasts a triumphant news clipping. She’s reportedly in foal to Malibu Moon again.
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Orb, Orb, Orb: The Hello Race Fans Preakness cheat sheet fills you in on the other eight starters. Johnny D has a few wagering tips (beyond Orb on top). Andrew Beyer wants to see “a truly great effort,” if Orb wins, but he doesn’t seem like a blowout kind of beast. (And if he is capable of a truly great, truly dominating win, wouldn’t it be better that he save it for the Belmont?) Orb’s “consistent grinding style” is winning, not flashy. He reminds me of Invasor, a tough, game, champion grinder, never dazzling, running just fast enough.
A week before the Preakness Stakes, the Baltimore Sun considers the question of why modern-day contenders in Triple Crown races may be slower than past generations. Thoro-Graph founder Jerry Brown disagrees that they are:
Brown’s studies have found that track surfaces are significantly different than they were in the 1970s, with as much as an inch more cushioning and more sand as opposed to hardened clay.
“It’s like they’re running in a sandbox,” he said of contemporary racehorses.
Accounting for this difference, Brown concludes that many of the most impressive runs in Triple Crown and other races have come in recent years.
In Brown’s view, if Orb could be sent back to the 1970s, “the colt would likely be 8-10 lengths faster than Triple Crown competitors from that era.”
One theory, glancingly mentioned in the Sun piece, is that elite 3-year-olds might be slower because they’re underworked, but the work patterns of recent Kentucky Derby winners don’t suggest that’s a major factor, at least, not when looking for a correlation with Beyer speed figures. Orb (104) worked 12 times at an average distance of four furlongs between the start of the year and the Kentucky Derby; 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another (101) worked 11 times at an average distance of 6.25 furlongs. While Orb and IHA are outliers in distance, they’re not in number of works, which, going back to 1998, ranged from seven (Animal Kingdom, 2011; Big Brown, 2008; Smarty Jones, 2004) to 14 (Street Sense, 2007; Giacomo, 2005; Funny Cide, 2003; Real Quiet, 1998). The average distance for all was five furlongs. The highest Beyer in the period covered went to Monarchos (116), who had four prep races and nine works at an average distance of 4.75 furlongs. The lowest went to Giacomo (100), who had three prep races and 14 works at an average distance of 5.5 furlongs.
Preakness winners 2001-2012, where they finished in the Kentucky Derby, and their Preakness odds / Kentucky Derby winners, where they finished in the Preakness, and their Preakness odds / * = Preakness post-time favorite
About a dozen have been declared as likely starters in the Preakness Stakes, with seven plus Orb coming out of the Kentucky Derby. Looking at the last dozen runnings of the Preakness, one of that group is most likely to beat Derby winner Orb (if he can be beaten). Non-Derby starters have won the Preakness only twice since 2001, both in years of exceptional circumstance.
Kentucky Derby winners have a mixed record over the period listed above, with one DNF, six losses, and five wins. Assuming Orb is the favorite in the Preakness as he was in the Derby, the odds tilt back in his favor with the performance of Derby favorites as Preakness favorites since 2001 — three of the four in that group (Point Given, 1.80 KYD; Smarty Jones, 4.10 KYD; Street Sense, 4.90 KYD; and Big Brown, 2.40 KYD) won the second leg of the Triple Crown. Street Sense finished second to Curlin, the eventual 2007 Horse of the Year. All of which is to say, if you like Illinois Derby winner Departing for the Preakness upset — well, you have to hope Orb’s former Claiborne pasture buddy proves exceptional in more ways than one.