Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Racing world craves greatness from Orb

Patterson galloped Kentucky Derby winner and  Preakness Stakes favorite Orb at Pimlico Race Course on Friday. The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978.
Patterson galloped Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness Stakes favorite Orb at Pimlico Race Course on Friday. The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978. ASSOCIATED PRESS

BALTIMORE — You've gotta root for Orb.

Come on, you've gotta root for Orb.

"Everybody should be rooting for Orb except the connections of the other horses," Bob Baffert said Friday as he stood in front of the Stakes Barn at Pimlico. "Anybody who's not rooting for Orb, there's something mentally wrong with them."

It should be noted that Bob Baffert, who has won the Preakness on five different occasions, does not train Orb.

Shug McGaughey trains Orb. There was the 62-year-old Lexington native Friday morning on Old Hilltop, outside the Stakes Barn, helping rinse off the Kentucky Derby winner after a bath.

In khakis, a blue shirt, a blue vest and something close to tennis shoes, McGaughey appeared relaxed a day before his star 3-year-old tackles the second leg of the Triple Crown.

After a 15-minute question-and-answer session with the media — McGaughey's daily ritual since Orb arrived here Monday afternoon — the trainer chatted with an Ole Miss grad about his days in Oxford, talked about playing golf with the Mannings, and reflected on an old boyhood fishing friend back in Lexington.

"I'm excited," said the man who doesn't always look excited even when he is, in fact, excited. "I'm excited about (Saturday)."

The sport is excited, too, because, well, it is that time of year when people are actually paying attention and the sport is allowing itself to think — if we can dare say it — Triple Crown.

We know, we know, the sport has dreamed those two words before. And yes, the sport largely dreams those two words because of the belief that the interest in a Triple Crown winner would draw attention to a sport badly in need of help.

And the sport has raised its hopes many times in the prolonged drought since Affirmed won all three races in 1978.

Real Quiet came oh-so-close in 1998. Smarty Jones led halfway down the Belmont stretch in 2004. Barbaro was such an impressive Derby winner in 2006. Big Brown appeared dominant in 2008 until he tanked in the Belmont.

Just last year, I'll Have Another was on the doorstep before being scratched just a shade more than 24 hours before the race.

Not one could get the job done.

And yet, for some reason, maybe because we are optimistic and sentimental fools when it comes to horses, even with two legs of the Triple Crown remaining, this year feels different, as if there really is more of a chance the feat can be accomplished.

"Orb is a freak," Baffert said before adding, "You have a horse that has won five races in a row. That's a very good horse."

Plus, there seems to be more of a rooting interest this time inside the sport which loves the people that genuinely love and support the sport.

Such is the case with co-owners, breeders and first cousins Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps. Janney's parents owned the legendary and ill-fated filly Ruffian. After winning the Derby, Phipps talked about first coming to Churchill Downs with his grandmother in 1957 when the family owned Bold Ruler.

You don't get any more tradition-rich than that.

Then there is Claiborne Farm, the legendary Bourbon County farm where Orb was born and which has a long relationship with the Phipps family. Claiborne is also where the great Secretariat stood at stud after winning the Triple Crown in 1973, the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

If he could pull it off, Orb would be the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years, although by now we should know not to get too far ahead of ourselves.

"There's a lot of ways you can lose, as we all know," McGaughey said Friday. "You hope he handles the track. You hope he handles the kickback of the dirt. You hope he handles the day. If he does all that, I would have to think it would take a pretty darn good horse to beat him."

Come on, you gotta root for Orb.

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