ELMONT, N.Y. — Through all the tumult of the past five weeks, the final leg of the 2013 Triple Crown season has in some sense come full circle to where things stood on the eve of May 4.
Trainer Todd Pletcher again has compiled a five-horse arsenal to face morning-line favorite Orb in a classic test. Jockey Rosie Napravnik has fielded more inquiries than she cares to recall about her potential history-making exploits. And the dean of the backstretch, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, is certain he can deliver a Triple Crown clinic at his distinguished age of 77.
The impact players from Kentucky Derby 139 have pretty much all returned for the 145th Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Similar as the surface story lines may be, so much has changed in the undercurrent.
Redemption and validation are just a couple of the themes woven throughout the 14-horse field for the $1 million Belmont, with Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Preakness Stakes conqueror Oxbow the respective poster children for each.
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The way Orb manhandled 18 other challengers during his victory in the Kentucky Derby — his fifth consecutive win — was such that even his Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, let his mind ponder how it would feel to be at his Belmont Park base with a Triple Crown on the line this weekend.
The acceleration that launched Orb from 16th to first on Derby Day was shockingly absent when the son of Malibu Moon ended up trapped inside during his fourth-place finish behind gate-to-wire winner Oxbow in the Preakness. For his part, McGaughey has said he is drawing a line through that outing, chalking up the defeat to a tiring inside path and the exceptionally slow fractions Oxbow was allowed to run.
"I know for a fact that Orb runs much better on the outside. He can run behind horses all you want, but when you ask him to do something he's not a horse that's going to squeeze between the horses inside," said jockey John Velazquez, who rode Orb to victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby before taking off to ride Verrazano in the Kentucky Derby. "The track (Pimlico) was dead in there and he was tucked the whole way around on the inside, so that was the difference."
The Belmont should be a definitive indicator of whether Orb — the 3-1 morning line favorite — had an off day in the Preakness or is in the midst of regressing. Peter Pan Stakes winner Freedom Child is among those expected to ensure an honest pace, and Orb has a better starting point to work with from post position No. 5.
"Watching him here and watching him at Pimlico and making those comparisons, maybe he's moving a little bit better over this track, carrying his head a little more like I'd like for it to be," McGaughey said. "I don't think we got to see the real horse three weeks ago. He has done well here, and I would sure like to have the real horse show up."
No trainer has won more Triple Crown races than Lukas, with Oxbow being his record-setting 14th victor. Orb's luster may have taken a hit, but Oxbow's win is still viewed by some as a product of circumstance rather than an improvement in his prior ability.
Before his 13/4-length Preakness win, the son of Awesome Again had lost four straight races, including a sneaky good sixth-place run in the Kentucky Derby after laying near a suicidal pace.
"It (the Belmont oval) probably doesn't complement his style," said Lukas, who also will saddle Will Take Charge — eighth in the Derby and seventh in the Preakness — in the Belmont. "But he's such a tough horse and a fighter; he keeps coming back."
Of the five horses Pletcher saddled in this year's Kentucky Derby, WinStar Farm's Revolutionary was the only one to hit the board, coming home third after being next to last in the early going.
The 9-2 second choice in the Belmont morning line, Revolutionary is now among the record quintet of contenders Pletcher brings to New York along with Overanalyze and Palace Malice — 11th and 12th in the Kentucky Derby, respectively — multiple graded stakes-winning filly Unlimited Budget and maiden winner Midnight Taboo.
Unlimited Budget finished third in the Kentucky Oaks but figures to take a good share of money from the betting public as she will have Napravnik in the irons seeking to join Julie Krone as the only female jockeys to win a Triple Crown race.
Pletcher made history himself when he conditioned Rags to Riches to victory in the 2007 Belmont Stakes, making her just the third filly to win the race. While Unlimited Budget is a similarly strong-bodied filly, she does not have the stamina-laden pedigree Rags to Riches boasted.
While extremely talented horses have been able to outrun their bloodlines' limitations in the 11/4-mile Kentucky Derby, the Belmont's 12-furlong distance makes few allowances for those who don't fit the profile.
"Pedigree is probably a bigger role in this race than the other two Triple Crown races," Pletcher said. "But the pace is probably going to determine who stays a mile and a half and who doesn't. If they get involved in a fast pace up front, then a lot of them are going to fade, even the ones with strong pedigrees. But the key is your horse's ability to settle and have something left. If they go slow enough, a lot of them will stay this far. But it doesn't always work that way."
When: 6:36 p.m.
Where: Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 11/2 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
TV, radio: NBC-18, WLXO-FM 96.1