ELMONT, N.Y. — Nearly five weeks ago when a chunk of the racing community was ready to anoint Orb, the common thinking was that if Kentucky Derby winner could collect the middle leg of the Triple Crown, Saturday's Belmont Stakes would play most in his favor.
Oxbow's upset victory in the Preakness Stakes with Orb trailing home in fourth shattered Thoroughbred racing's hopes of a Triple Crown threat this season.
Even after that disappointment, though, the general opinion in Orb's camp is that the son of Malibu Moon should be an ideal fit for the 11/2-mile classic.
The Shug McGaughey-trained Orb was installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite on Wednesday after drawing post No. 5 among 14 entered for the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes.
The field is the largest since 14 went to post in 1996.
Clearly no one is scared of taking on Orb and Oxbow — least of all trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle five starters, including three owned by Mike Repole.
One bad day for Orb in the Preakness was enough to erase a shot at history. Before that outing, however, came a string of five consecutive wins that displayed the ability needed to handle the tactical test that is the Belmont.
"He is the horse that if you're being totally rational, he's the horse who scares me," said Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, co-owners of 8-1 choice Freedom Child. "He's such a quality horse. It's just not easy for a horse to run as well as he did at Churchill and then ship and come back in two weeks to replicate that performance. It's also not easy to come back in three weeks but he's the horse that is really in the back of my mind. But there are 5-6 others that have the talent to win this race. They just have to have a good day, us included."
Wednesday's draw already went into the books as a better day for Team Orb than when groans greeted his landing in the No. 1 hole for the Preakness
To his inside will be Freedom Child, who has been on or near the lead in four of his six lifetime starts, in post No. 2 while expected pace-prompters Oxbow and Palace Malice will be in the Nos. 7 and 12 slots, respectively.
Regardless how the pace plays out, McGaughey wants jockey Joel Rosario to get Orb in a spot where he can get into the comfortable, rhythmic style that never materialized in the Preakness.
"I just want him to have a place to go. Whether it be in the middle of the pack or outside or if the inside opens up," McGaughey said. "If we had won the Preakness, my confidence level would probably be higher than what it is right now, but I think that he's well suited to the Belmont.
"I think he's training well coming up to the race. And I do think if he runs his race, he's probably the best horse."
With rain in the forecast for Saturday, Orb's mud-spattered Derby win and Freedom Child's freakish 131/4-length win over a sealed, sloppy Belmont track in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes on May 11 will take on extra consideration.
McGaughey warns, though, that predicting form from one sloppy track to the next is no exact science.
"Now if they were to seal it down really tight, it wouldn't be that much different," McGaughey said. "If it comes up sloppy, it comes up sloppy. But to be fair for everyone, I would like to see it have a fast track."
Oxbow, 5-1 third choice on the morning line behind 9-2 Revolutionary, has the high cruising speed that is key to getting the Belmont's distance. After being allowed to steal the Preakness with tepid fractions up front, his relaxation skills will probably be tested by the aforementioned front-runners.
"From an inside post (Freedom Child) is probably going to be the one who determines how fast they go early and then (jockey) Gary Stevens (on Oxbow) is going to be able to dictate what he does," Pletcher said. "That is assuming everyone does what you think they'll do."
Pletcher won his first Triple Crown race when he sent the filly Rags to Riches out to an epic victory over eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes. Though not as stoutly bred for distance as her predecessor, fellow Pletcher trainee Unlimited Budget will attempt to overcome her bloodline limitations and become the fourth filly to win the race when she breaks from post No. 13 under jockey Rosie Napravnik.
"If she runs to (sire) Street Sense's side, she can run 2 miles. If she runs to the (dam's) side, she can run a mile," said Repole, who also owns entrants Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo. "I think it really depends on the pace. If we put her off the lead, I think she'll settle."
When: Saturday, June 8, 6:35 p.m.
Where: Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 11/2 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
BELMONT STAKES FIELD
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Frac Daddy Ken McPeek Alan Garcia 30-1
2 Freedom Child Tom Albertrani Luis Saez 8-1
3 Overanalyze Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 12-1
4 Giant Finish Tony Dutrow Edgar Prado 30-1
5 Orb Shug McGaughey Joel Rosario 3-1
6 Incognito Kiaran McLaughlin Irad Ortiz Jr. 20-1
7 Oxbow D. Wayne Lukas Gary Stevens 5-1
8 Midnight Taboo Todd Pletcher Garrett Gomez 30-1
9 Revolutionary Todd Pletcher Javier Castellano 9-2
10 Will Take Charge D. Wayne Lukas Jon Court 20-1
11 Vyjack Rudy Rodriguez Julien Leparoux 20-1
12 Palace Malice Todd Pletcher Mike Smith 15-1
13 Unlimited Budget Todd Pletcher Rosie Napravnik 8-1
14 Golden Soul Dallas Stewart Robbie Albarado 10-1
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.