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The Case For ... Orb to Win


Attempting to pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby is, in many ways, an absurd exercise. You might as well tack your Daily Racing Form to the wall and throw a dart at the entries. Late this Saturday afternoon, 20 3-year-old horses will go to the post at Churchill Downs in Louisville to contest the most important horse race in the U.S. and the last one still watched by a wide audience (excepting the Belmont Stakes in those years when a Triple Crown is at stake). Three-year-olds are like teenagers, still developing their athleticism and their personality. None have run the full Derby distance of 1¼ miles, and almost none ever raced in a field of 20, which is much too large and leaves many starters subject to the vagaries of the post-position draw and racing luck, regardless of talent.

In some years there are attractive choices. Big Brown romped to a 4¾-length victory as the favorite in 2008 at 3--1 odds despite breaking from the number 20 post position, the first time a horse had won from that far outside in 79 years. Two years earlier, the ill-fated Barbaro rolled to a 6½-length victory. No such monster has presented himself this spring, though it could happen on Saturday. It's also possible we'll get something like what occurred in '09, when Mine That Bird and jockey Calvin Borel slogged through on the rail to win at 50--1 odds. Four years earlier Giacomo picked up the pieces after a suicidal early pace and scored at the same odds. It's the Derby. Even the best prognosticators are picking with fingers crossed and eyes cast skyward.

Having qualified everything that follows, I will now lurch forward and pick Orb to win the 139th Kentucky Derby. I'm not picking him because he's trained by Shug McGaughey, a likable native Kentucky hardboot who hasn't brought a viable contender to Churchill Downs since Easy Goer finished second in 1989. I'm picking him because, in a Derby that lacks obvious brilliance, Orb is a consistent, durable performer with four straight wins in races of increasing difficulty.

Orb needed four starts to break his maiden before winning at a mile at Aqueduct last November. His Derby prep campaign has consisted of three victories at Gulfstream Park in Florida: an allowance at 11/8 miles, the Fountain of Youth at 11/16 miles and the Florida Derby at 11/8 miles on March 30, where he easily outfinished Itsmyluckyday, another Derby contender, by 2¾ lengths. Orb has experienced trouble, going four wide in four of his last five starts. He's a mid-pack runner or closer, which leaves him at the mercy of traffic, though I believe he's mature enough to handle any problems. Jockey John Velazquez, who was aboard Orb in the bay colt's last two wins, chose to ride likely favorite Verrazano, but I suspect that's largely due to the rider's loyalty to Todd Pletcher, Verrazano's trainer. Orb will be in good hands with jockey Joel Rosario, a veteran rider who was in the irons for the first five races of the colt's career.

I'm tossing Verrazano. No horse unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882 (Verrazano first raced on Jan. 1), but my bigger concern is that in winning three preps at increasing distances, Verrazano's Beyer speed figures have declined from 105 (allowance) to 101 (Tampa Bay Derby) to 95 (Wood Memorial). I don't think he wants 10 furlongs. Goldencents, the colt partially owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, scares me; he's a fast horse, and there doesn't appear to be a lot of early speed in the Derby. He might be able to steal the race on the lead, but that almost never happens—the last front-runner to win was War Emblem in 2002.

Other horses worth looking at include Normandy Invasion, who finished second behind Verrazano in the Wood Memorial. Trainer Bob Baffert's Govenor Charlie—still undeclared for the race at week's end—romped in the same Sunland Derby that produced Mine That Bird. And of course, the rest of the field too. It's the Derby.

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In a Derby that lacks brilliance, go with the steady, durable performer.