LITTLE ROCK — If Kentucky Derby winner Orb was going to fail in his Triple Crown, better that he lose in Baltimore than in New York.
The last thing I want to hear is how the rules should be changed to facilitate the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1978. Those who wrongly believe a Triple Crown winner will create a new generation of racing fans would have been espousing such long before Orb and his opponents loaded into the gate for the Belmont on June 8. Criticism would have been distributed equally between horsemen who lost to Orb in the Derby and skipped the Preakness to rest their horse for the Belmont and those who did not compete in either of the first two Triple Crown races while taking dead aim on the third.
Trainers and owners should be all in for the Triple Crown or not in at all, critics say.
An astute handicapper I know who cashed handsomely on the Derby even suggested that the Derby winner get an advantage in the Preakness, maybe given his choice of post positions.
Winning three races at different distances and different racetracks in five weeks is supposed to be difficult. Sure, 3-year-olds usually face more horses in Triple Crown races these days than 3-year-olds did 35 or 40 years ago and they must defeat a wider variety of opponents. So what. The next time there is a Triple Crown winner, he will be a super horse.
Sweeping the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont is doable.
Fourteen months ago, who would have thought Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera would be the first player in the major leagues to win baseball’s Triple Crown in 45 years. Now, there is talk about Cabrera becoming the first to do it in consecutive seasons.
For a variety of reasons, there seemed to be more than the usual amount of hype about the Triple Crown chances of this year’s Derby winner.
From his owners to his trainer to his jockey, Orb had all the right connections. Throw in Orb swooping the field at Churchill Downs, his superb workout days before the Preakness, and questions about the quality of the horses beaten by new shooters Departing in the Illinois Derby and Govenor Charlie in the Sunland Park Derby and it is no wonder that Orb was 3-5 at post time.
Even a relative who relishes playing against favorites in Triple Crown races refrained. Like me, he thought Orb would win although the final paragraph of Saturday’s column hedged, noting that a “horse alone on the lead is dangerous.”
Right idea, wrong horse. The column identified Goldencents as a possible wire-to-wire winner. Instead, going into the first turn, Gary Stevens insisted on taking Oxbow to the lead and Kevin Krigger aboard Goldencents did not dispute the plan.
During the next half-mile, Stevens — the 50-year-old who recently returned to the saddle after seven years in retirement — won the race. The very best riders have a clock in their head and can identify the best part of the racetrack and Stevens is in the Hall of Fame.
The first half-mile of the Preakness was almost three seconds slower than the opening half-mile of the Derby; the next quarter-mile equally pedestrian. “I was just walking the dog,” Stevens said.
In effect, Stevens did the same thing as a distance runner who gets to the front, slows the pace, and has plenty left when it is time to kick for home. In addition, Stevens kept Oxbow four or five lanes off the rail, knowing the shortest path to the finish line is not necessarily the swiftest.
Orb and Oxbow are among a dozen possible for the Belmont. In 2011, Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford squared off in the Belmont. The winner was Ruler On Ice.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.