Thursday, May 09, 2013


Could Orb ‘Tell’ Shug to Pull the Plug?


The time after the Kentucky Derby feels like those boozy hangover-ridden mornings where the only cure is a chicken-fried steak and one of those memory-erasing sticks they use in Men in Black.

Just like the cure for the hangover is more booze, the cure the Derby hangover is more betting. So let’s move this narrative along to Maryland.

No sooner does the Kentucky Derby winner—Orb in this case—cross the finish line do the Triple Crown questions start. Orb has the running style to do it. He proved he can run on an off-track (though will an off-track at Pimlico or Belmont be equivalent to Churchill? Probably not. As we know, mud in the Kentucky is a better class of mud.).

Orb is lightly raced, but also has enough experience, too.

But I just don’t see him winning the Triple Crown, and it will be his trainer who pulls the plug.

Let’s assume Orb wins the Preakness, which, with the new shooters and some good Derby horses wheeling back, is no lock. Shug McGaughey always says let the horse bring him wherever—the Breeders’ Cup, the Derby, Applebees.

If Orb hangs his head a centimeter lower than he normally does, this horse will be at the farm faster than you can 1978.

Orb will run 19 ½ furlongs in the span of two weeks. His bones and body could be solid as steel and McGaughey won’t think twice about scratching him from Belmont consideration. It’s just like Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit, said on her Facebook page Sunday:

“I have revered Shug McGaughey above all other trainers since he campaigned the greatest racehorse I ever saw, Easy Goer, in 1988-90. Shug is an understated, contemplative, usually unsmiling man, but he speaks through his horses, for whom he cares with a father's protective, knowing and loving eye. He is a purist, the straightest of arrows, a hay, oats and water man. Thanks to his meticulous care and wise judgment, his horses have long, glorious careers and retire as sound as the day they were born.

"Shug has wanted to win the Derby all his life. He has trained numerous champions, and he could arrive at the Derby every year with a stack of horses to throw at the race, as some trainers invariably do. But Shug will never, ever push a horse beyond what he is prepared to do, and never put a horse in this most harrowing of races unless the horse tells him he's ready. 'Let the horse bring you,' is his maxim. For that reason he has had few Derby starters, and the blanket of roses has eluded him. But yesterday, Orb told him he was ready, and Shug let him go.”

That’s the most likely reason Orb wouldn’t win the Triple Crown. There’s the new shooters, and those well-rested horses manage to screw everything up. (Yeah, Birdstone, I’m talking to you.)

It’s an unfair advantage new shooters and Preakness-skippers or Derby skippers have. The only horses that wheel back as often as a Triple Crown-contending horse are the poor nags that have to fill a race card so these regal steeds may run.

I’d like to see the horses running in the Preakness and Belmont have run within the same time window as Orb.

For the Preakness, Orb should run against horses who have had no fewer than two weeks’ rest. For the Belmont, Orb should run against horses with no fewer than three weeks’ rest, ideally having run three times in five weeks as well.

It often happens in horse racing that luck is too big a factor. It’s a factor in Kentucky with 20 horses breaking together. The luck of the post position it too significant (based on rankings, trainers should be able to choose their post position. They’ve done all this work to get this far and then, at the shake of a pill, get Post 20. Bye, bye Derby. Use those points to grant better access to the gate.)

Now, when the sport starves for a Triple Crown winner, it has stacked the deck against itself in every imaginable way.

Perhaps that will make it all the more special when a horse finally does it (I never thought we’d see a Triple Crown winner in baseball again, and that happened in 2012). If a horse overcomes all these obstacles, it will be special indeed.

The hurdles the horse has to jump through in the modern-day style of training horses, taking breaks and taking fresh shots at tired three-year-olds seems unfair. Cornerbacks can’t grab wide receivers, guards have a 3-point-line to shoot from, the pitcher’s mound was lowered, all to make sports better events to watch.

Maybe Shug will pull the plug before Orb gets a chance at history because Orb tells him so. Even if that isn't the case, history may be too heavy a weight to bear, no matter how talented this colt is.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (8)

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