BALTIMORE — Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert have a combined 10 victories in the Preakness Stakes, equally split at five apiece. Having been there and seen everything in the 1 3⁄16-mile classic, there is naturally more credence to their opinions even if sometimes draped in trainer-speak.
In assessing Saturday's nine-horse field slated to start in the 138th running of the middle leg of the Triple Crown, Lukas and Baffert were almost in lockstep in their final conclusions.
Confident as they feel about the horses they will saddle, they feel just as strongly about the Kentucky Derby winner they will be lining up against.
"Orb, he's a freak," Baffert said. "I just feel I have a lot of respect for that horse."
"If you believe in karma it's down there, it's not here," Lukas said. "I think we are (competitive) but Orb's the best horse, let's face it."
As trainer Shug McGaughey added Friday, freaky things can happen once the starting gate flies open. If McGaughey's Orb continues to be what the majority thinks he is, an unconventional type of scenario would be needed to prevent the son of Malibu Moon from heading into the Belmont Stakes with Triple Crown glory on the line.
If the hype around Orb was bubbling prior to his come-from-behind 21/2-length victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, the racing community has officially reached its boiling point in terms of expectations for Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stables' homebred. Of the top four horses who finished immediately behind Orb in the Derby, only fifth-place finisher Mylute is returning for the Preakness with Oxbow (6th), Will Take Charge (8th), Itsmyluckyday (15th) and Goldencents (17th) the other Derby runners doing the two-week turnaround.
Among the "new shooters" in the Preakness field, Al Stall Jr.-trainee Departing is taking the most attention as an upset possibility off his 31/4-length win in the Illinois Derby on April 20 and the fresh legs he brings with him. Such too could be the case for Baffert's charge Govenor Charlie, who won the Sunland Derby by 5 lengths on March 24 but missed the Kentucky Derby because of a hoof bruise.
"He's going to run his race, whether it's good enough we'll find out," said Baffert, who added he has never run a horse in the Preakness that didn't start in the Derby. "The second leg is the easiest for these (Derby) horses, believe it or not, because the horse is peaking. They're in the zone ... and you can't really mess them up in two weeks."
Since Deputed Testamony pulled off the feat in 1983, only Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and Rachel Alexandra (2009) have taken the middle jewel without running in the Derby.
Given the strength with which Orb galloped out after his 11/4-mile outing and the effortless way he worked 4 furlongs in :47.18 at Belmont Park on Monday, McGaughey thinks he may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg from the colt who has won five straight races dating to last November.
"One thing that has surprised me is how he's coming out of his races mentally and physically," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "His work at Belmont on Monday was something that I haven't ever really seen maybe before. The way he did it, the way he finished up by himself with very little urging if any.
"I think if he goes over there and runs his race, I'm quietly confident that he'll be awfully tough to beat just as I was in the Derby."
The biggest hurdle Orb may have to overcome is his starting point in the No. 1 post position. Given Orb's off-the-pace style and the small nature of the field, the inside slot shouldn't impact his tactics too much.
It will allow, however, his challengers to more quickly assess where the horse to beat will be coming from.
"I am sure all the riders will be keeping an eye on Orb," Stall said. "Shug said he wanted a target on his back and he's sure got one."
Itsmyluckyday was second to Orb when that one won the Grade I Florida Derby, but he ran the worst race of his 11-race career over a sloppy track on the first Saturday in May.
Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr is hoping for a fast track Saturday to see his charge show his best self. Even then, it may not be enough to topple what Orb has to offer.
"He's the best 3-year-old in the country, no question about it," Plesa said of Orb. "We could be sitting here in a very short period of time and they could be talking about him as Horse of the Year. Orb has been sensational since he turned 3, and he's absolutely the horse to beat for all of us. He deserves the accolades he's getting."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.