With only one-third of the Triple Crown in the record books, it may seem premature to anoint Kentucky Derby champion Orb as horse racing's next superstar. He has two major hurdles to clear before he can claim the sport's most elusive prize.
However, in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Orb had an air of certainty about him. It was as if the stars aligned for him to win the Run for the Roses. He fulfilled that promise, and on paper, this colt has the makings of a horse that can legitimately go all the way.
Since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown in 1978, no horse has been able to win all three jewels. Since then, there have been 12 near-misses when a horse won the Derby and the Preakness only to disappoint in the Belmont Stakes. Can Orb carve himself a place in history as the 12th Triple Crown winner and join the ranks of Whirlaway, Secretariat and Seattle Slew?
What does it take to become a Triple Crown winner? It is not enough to just be fast; a horse needs to be durable, tenacious and have that tricky intangible—heart.
Behind Every Great Horse Is a Great Trainer
To win the Triple Crown, a horse must be victorious in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. These three races are run at three separate tracks, at three different distances and over a five-week span. While it takes a special horse to accomplish that triumph, it also takes a tremendous horseman to navigate the Triple Crown.
Orb is trained by one of the greats of the sport, Claude "Shug" McGaughey. Though Orb was his first Kentucky Derby winner, McGaughey did take part in one of the sport's greatest rivalries in 1989. He trained Easy Goer, the arch nemesis of that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Sunday Silence.
Though Easy Goer did not take home the roses, he did run top races in the Derby and Preakness, and finally he won the Belmont Stakes. McGaughey knows how to keep a horse sound, fit and happy for all three races.
Horses are also living, breathing athletes. For a horse to maintain peak form for three races so close together requires a masterful trainer. A top effort in a race can take a physical toll on a horse, and keeping them in prime physical condition is difficult and crucial.
There is a reason horse racing saw the majority of Triple Crown winners between 1930 and 1948. The simple truth is that horses were raced differently back then. Three races in five weeks was nothing unusual for the thoroughbred of the old days.
Now, however, the sport's top racehorses are campaigned like they are made of porcelain and often have five weeks or more between races. They are no longer bred or built to stand up to that kind of rigorous schedule. Orb could be an exception.
A Triple Crown Champion Needs a Strong Pedigree
Orb is a throwback to the warhorses of the old days.
In modern-day horse racing, horses are bred with the sales ring in mind. Some of the major money to be had in the sport is at auction, where well-bred, powerfully built youngsters can sell for millions at only a year old.
The fashionable horses at the sales tend to be the physically precocious babies who are bred to run fast early, providing the quickest return on investment. These horses generally do not have the stamina and the durability to withstand the demands of the Triple Crown.
Since Orb's owners, Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable, breed to race and not for public auction, they produce slightly slower-developing stock that have the stamina to run all day and are built to last. Orb's lineage can be traced back to horses like Bold Ruler and Shenanigans, the mare that produced the legendary Ruffian. Looking through Orb's family tree is like taking a history lesson in horse racing, and many of his famous ancestors were campaigned by the Janney and Phipps families.
McGaughey, known for being a conservative trainer, does not rush them and allows them to come along at their own pace. Orb made his career debut in August of his juvenile season and did not win his first race until November.
That patience has been rewarded handsomely. Orb has hit his best stride as a three-year-old and is undefeated this year. He seems to be growing stronger and more professional with every race, and likely his best is still yet to come. They have not gotten to the bottom of this colt yet, and that is a scary and exciting thing.
A Triple Crown Champion Needs a Little Luck
Since 1978, there have been some devastating defeats in the Belmont Stakes to deny the Sport of Kings the Triple Crown. Bad rides and even worse luck have resulted in heart-breaking losses by horses that seemed like they could not fail.
Some truly great horses—Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence and Silver Charm, among others—faltered in the final leg. Last year, Derby and Preakness champion I'll Have Another did not even make it to the starting gate after he was forced to withdraw the day before with an injury. It takes more than just talent and stamina to win the Triple Crown. It also takes luck.
Could this be the year the racing gods deign to allow a Triple Crown winner?
As the Preakness draws near, Orb will attempt to come one step closer to the exclusive club of Triple Crown champions. He has the stamina, he has the pedigree and now all he needs is a little bit of racing luck.