The quiet confidence of trainer Shug McGaughey in the early weeks of May directly correlated to the vibe he was getting from Kentucky Derby winner Orb during his morning works.
The results of two weeks ago understandably shook some of that faith. In his first workout since his upset loss in the Preakness Stakes, Orb got back to restoring his camp's prior aplomb.
Orb was given the go-ahead to be part of what could be a field of 15 for Saturday's Belmont Stakes after working a half-mile in 48.30 over the main track at Belmont Park on Sunday morning.
With exercise rider Jennifer Patterson aboard and working in company with Grade I winner Hymn Book, the son of Malibu Moon clocked the first quarter in 25.01 after an opening split of 13.05 before pulling well ahead while galloping out 5 furlongs in 1:00.48.
With Preakness winner Oxbow among the confirmed entrants for the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, Saturday is slated to be the 21st time the final leg of the Triple Crown has seen the winners of the Derby and Preakness square off.
"He hasn't missed a beat," McGaughey said of Orb. "Everything has been A-1 forward. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be standing here. I think the Belmont is a race that stands on its own and we would love to be able to compete in it and love to be able to have a good chance to win, and go from there."
Orb's 21/2-length triumph in the Kentucky Derby and his brilliant 4-furlong move in 47.18 leading up to the Preakness Stakes had even rival trainers fairly certain he would head to his Belmont Park base vying to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner.
The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Oxbow ruined all that when he loped along virtually unchallenged on the front end throughout while Orb, who had drawn post No. 1, struggled while stuck inside and ended up fourth on a day in which McGaughey said "nothing went right.
"It does shake your confidence a little bit," said McGaughey, who won the 1989 Belmont with Easy Goer after that one lost the first two legs to Sunday Silence. "I remember back in '89 when Easy Goer got beat in the Derby, I attributed it to the (sloppy) racetrack. But I didn't know, because I didn't have any comparison. Then we ran in the Preakness and got beat a nose, and I knew we were comparable to him. I think if things go right, next Saturday I think you'll see a different horse than we saw two weeks ago."
In the prior head-to-head meetings between Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont, the Derby winner has triumphed five times and the Preakness winner nine times, with the Preakness winner prevailing in five of the last seven instances.
The last Kentucky Derby winner to take the Belmont after dropping the middle leg was Lukas-trainee Thunder Gulch in 1995.
"It's very feasible we have three different winners this year," said Lukas, who plans to ship both Oxbow and Will Take Charge to Belmont on Monday. "When I saw Orb's work before the Preakness I thought, 'How in the hell are we going to beat him?' Then sure enough race day, things change."
Trainer Todd Pletcher could have as many as five entrants in the Belmont and sent the entire quintet out for works Sunday.
The graded stakes winning filly Unlimited Budget likely cemented her status as one of those expected starters after breezing a half mile in a bullet 47.55 in company with Capo Bastone. Owner Mike Repole, who is already set to be represented by Grade I winner Overanalyze, said Unlimited Budget was "80-90 percent" certain to run and that Midnight Taboo was "50-50" to run after being credited with a 5-furlong move in 1:00.88.
"Basically, (Repole) is holding the cards in terms of how many we end up running," said Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont with champion filly Rags to Riches. "With Midnight Taboo, the Easy Goer Stakes is an option that day. It's just a matter of how aggressive Mike wants to be, and take a shot with a horse that's lightly raced but has some talent.
"I thought (Unlimited Budget) was full of run throughout and finished up strongly and galloped out well," Pletcher continued. "The biggest difference was with her on the outside today, she seemed to get over the ground well."
Overanalyze worked 4 furlongs in :48.01 Sunday with stablemates Revolutionary, who was third in the Kentucky Derby, and Palace Malice covering the same distance in :48.51 and :47.56, respectively.
"I can't say that one stood out from the others," Pletcher said.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin pronounced Incognito, fifth in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes, ready for the Belmont Stakes after the colt breezed 4 furlongs on the Belmont training track in :48.25.
Peter Pan winner Freedom Child put in a strong gallop Sunday, covering 6 furlongs on the main track and opening up through the lane under a hold by rider Luis Saez.
Post time: 6:35 p.m.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.