A worthy Triple Crown candidate

May, 5, 2013
05/05/13
12:26
AM ET
The last two times Thoroughbred racing faced a Triple Crown sweep there was some hemming and hawing.

As desperate as the sport has been for its first Triple Crown winner since 1978, there was not universal support for last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another. In the background, behind all of the cheers, was a belief by some that trainer Doug O'Neill's medication violations made him a less than desirable candidate to receive everlasting fame as the trainer of the successor to Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat.

As it turned out, I'll Have Another was scratched due to an injury on the eve of the Belmont Stakes, extending the Triple Crown drought into its 35th year.

Four years earlier, the outcry was even louder when trainer Rick Dutrow arrived at Belmont Park seeking Triple Crown glory with Big Brown and raised even more eyebrows.

Similar to I'll Have Another, Big Brown did not cross the finish line in his Belmont as his 2008 Triple Crown bid ended when he was pulled up on the final turn.

As for Dutrow, he's now in the midst of a 10-year suspension for a litany of violations, illustrating the bullet the sport's reputation dodged.

Against that checkered recent past, when the sun set on that famed Old Kentucky Home on the first Saturday in May, racing had something it desperately needs: a new hero with the potential to fill a world of needs.

Trainer Shug McGaughey, jockey Joel Rosario and Kentucky Derby winner Orb at Churchill Downs.Getty ImagesShug McGaughey, Joel Rosario and Orb are an easy trio for fans to get behind for the Triple Crown.
In Orb, racing has a Kentucky Derby winner who seems perfectly scripted for the sport.

The stars, at least at this moment, seem rather nicely aligned.

Thanks to a surge of late money, Orb was the 5-1 betting favorite in the Derby, justifying his selection as the 7-2 morning-line favorite. That status came as a result of an impressive spring that saw him rally to win the Fountain of Youth and then the Florida Derby at speed-favoring Gulfstream Park, which stamped him as a threat to win any of the Triple Crown races.

Unlike some recent longshot winners of the Derby, Orb came into the Run for the Roses as the leader of the 3-year-old division and exited still on top -- something that elicits confidence in him in regards to the two upcoming legs of the series.

As legitimate as his credentials may be for future success in the Triple Crown, his connections are even more sterling.

His trainer, Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, has enjoyed a squeaky-clean career since he took out his license in 1979, a year after Affirmed's sweep. He has trained nine champions including Easy Goer, who came away with a Belmont Stakes win and two runner-up finishes during his memorable 1989 Triple Crown rivalry with Sunday Silence.

Born in Lexington, Ky., McGaughey has long considered the Derby the race he wanted to win most and on Saturday, when his lifelong ambition finally came to fruition, the outpouring of congratulatory messages from all corners of the industry reflected the deep respect for him.

Orb's owners have a longer and even more storied association with the sport.

A bad day in Baltimore two weeks from now, and regardless of the platitudes currently being tossed around, Orb will be reduced to your run-of-the-mill Derby winner.

One of them is Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, whose family's ties with the sport date back to the first half of the 20th Century. He and his family raced Easy Goer as well as other great champions as Buckpasser, the undefeated Personal Ensign and Relaxing.

Phipps, a past chairman of the New York Racing Association's Board of Trustees, is now chairman of The Jockey Club and is considered one of the sport's most respected figures.

The other owner is Phipps' first cousin, Stuart S. Janney III, whose family also has deep roots in racing and holds a special place in the sport's history.

Surely much can change in the course of the next five weeks. A bad day in Baltimore two weeks from now, and regardless of the platitudes currently being tossed around, Orb will be reduced to your run-of-the-mill Derby winner.

Yet as much as Triple Crown talk in earnest may be way too premature at this point, after 35 years without something to celebrate, the ability to at least daydream should not be ignored. Why not ponder the possibilities? Especially since, if Orb has another effort in him as powerful as his convincing 2½-length win in the slop in the Derby, he could turn the Preakness into the impetus for as poignant a scene as racing has witnessed in a long while.

You see, Janney's parents, Stuart and Barbara, owned Ruffian, the legendary filly who broke down and was humanely destroyed after suffering a catastrophic injury in a 1975 match-race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park.

Let Orb win one more race and the very place where a family suffered its most devastating moment in racing could become the place where it enjoys the sport's ultimate thrill.

It's a heck of a storyline, and it's not the only one. The common denominator, though, is that all of them are feel-good stories.

Racing is once again down to just one horse that can capture the Triple Crown, and this time there are no strings attached. No longer does the sport have a Roger Maris chasing Babe Ruth. It has a Mickey Mantle.

Off what the public saw in the Derby, there's little doubt Orb will be the betting favorite in the Preakness.

He'll also be the favorite of an industry at Pimlico, and, if destiny and fate agree to cooperate, perhaps at Belmont Park as well.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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