Sunday, September 08, 2013

Summer of George, Autumn of Orb

For all that’s made about Saratoga in the summer, Belmont Park in the fall can hold its own. I’ve only been to Belmont Park a few times (2008 Belmont Week for Big Brown, 2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup Day for Curlin, and 2009 Belmont Day where I drew up a Pick 3 ticket on my blog that cost $18 and paid $1,300. No, I didn’t play it.).

Too far a drive for this guy, but you better believe the Orb will be making the trip, this year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Three-year-olds coming into their skin in the fall are every bit as exciting as the ones getting used to their skin in the spring. There’s this collective feeling that we’ve seen them grow up. It’s the ultimate compression in sports. In so many other sports, take football for instance, we watched Peyton Manning have an iconic career at Tennessee, be the No. 1 pick, struggle with Colts, excel with the Colts, have his neck torn open, have his neck sewed back together, miss a year in his prime, get cut from the Colts, sign with Broncos, fail in the playoffs thanks to a fluke bomb, and now throw seven (!) touchdown passes to open the troubled NFL season.

(Mrs. Carryover let out a blood curdling yell this morning, think William Wallace after the Battle of Stirling. Mrs. Carryover has Manning and Demaryius Thomas on her fantasy team, The Spaceman Spiffs. She’s winning 88-0.)

But with horses, their “college” career may be the tail-end of their two-year-old year. Their prime, for most of them, is their three-year-old year and we watch them cram all that triumph and failure into six to eight races. Then they retire.

What we’ve seen with Orb is nothing short of a Manning-like arc. A promising early career, giving up a loss to Violence (the same way Manning could never beat Florida), followed by “regular-season” triumphs in the pros with wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and a Super Bowl win in the Derby. (Three-year-olds get two Super Bowls: the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.)

Since the Derby, Orb has had a Manning-esque post-season flounder. The fourth in the Preakness and the third in the Belmont were sub-Orb efforts. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, sent him to time out in Maryland.

Orb returned in the Travers and made a winning run between the 3/8ths pole and the quarter pole. He held on for third, but that move he made—and his inability to sustain it—simply proved he wasn’t race fit. How could he? He hadn’t raced in over two months then dived right into a 10-furlong race against a strong field of proven sophomores.

If Palace Malice breaks well and Mike Smith doesn’t have 2010-Zenyatta-In-The-Breeders’-Cup-Classic flashback, maybe Palace Malice wins and Orb finishes fourth. Fourth, third, it didn’t matter. Shug sees the forest while others see the trees, which is why the Jockey Club Gold Cup will be a sweet time to cash a fat win bet on Orb at about 3-1

Three-year-olds have fared well in this race over the past decade. Three times since 2003 a three-year-old has won. Summer Bird in 2009, Curlin in 2007, and Bernardini in 2006. Only Curlin won the Breeeders’ Cup Classic that year. Bernardini was the best horse in 2006, was pretty rank in the Classic, and still almost beat Invasor.

Still, you have to go back to 1997 to see the only other horse complete the JCGC-BCC double. That was Skip Away as a four-year-old. Curlin was the only three-year-old in the history of both races to pull off that double. I think Orb will be the second.

Here’s the deal: when Curlin pulled off the great post-Triple Crown run this was his schedule post-Belmont Stakes (where, for all intents and purposes, he won): Haskell, JCGC, Breeders’ Cup Classic. Three post-Triple Crown races. His other rivals had four (namely Hard Spun and Street Sense).

Orb, if all goes according to plan, will only have two post-Triple Crown races: Travers, JCGC, Breeders’ Cup Classic. He will come into both of these races fresher than anyone. The Travers was his second-half-of-the-year Fountain of Youth, a prep. The JCGC will be huge, setting the table for fireworks in Santa Anita.

A star is always brightest before it burns out

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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