LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Early Sunday morning, rain fell steadily, but it couldn't douse Shug McGaughey's fire. Outside his barn in the Churchill Downs stable area, a small crowd gathered, many huddling beneath the eaves in a futile attempt to stay dry and a few cowering beneath umbrellas, to hear news of his plans for Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, and, even more, to gauge McGaughey's enthusiasm.
"I'm continually amazed at what I'm seeing," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "What kind of ability he has -- who knows."
Orb, as the whole world knows, won the Derby by more than two lengths Saturday, rallying from far back, scurrying around the second turn and then charging down the Churchill Downs stretch. It was a dominant performance, and it culminated more than a week of training in which Orb sparkled, seemingly stepping forward with each spin around the racetrack. And so, as McGaughey said, who knows how good the big colt might be or become.
"I don't really know what I have," McGaughey said, "but I know I have the Derby winner." In that, there was enormous satisfaction for a trainer Kentucky born and raised.
And so Orb sits firmly, securely and unanimously atop the ESPN.com poll of Triple Crown contenders, and only a huge effort from some unanticipated source will topple him. He traveled Sunday to New York, where he'll train briefly before moving on to Baltimore, Md., and Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, the second race in the sport's famed Triple Crown. From the Derby, seven are expected to continue along the Triple Crown trail -- Vyjack, Normandy Invasion, Goldencents, Itsymyluckyday, Oxbow, Will Take Charge and maybe Mylute. And at least one newcomer, Departing, will join the cast, with the possibility of a few more, such as Govenor Charlie and Bellarmine.
Orb's Kentucky Derby was a statement, an assertion of superiority. And, as his trainer said, who knows how good this colt might be. Yes, the rapid pace worked to his advantage; and, yes, he handled the sloppy going while some others perhaps didn't. Still, this is an outstanding colt that seems to be moving forward relentlessly, a vector that, who knows, might take him all the way.
With his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Revolutionary validated his determination and talent. But he does all his running down the stretch, a style that won't beat Orb in Baltimore. Revolutionary was a length behind Orb when they entered the turn Saturday, two lengths behind when they straightened for the run down the lane and 3 ½ lengths behind at the wire.
3. Normandy Invasion
Normandy Invasion made the lead in mid-stretch at Churchill, but couldn't sustain his move. He trained sharply leading up to the Derby, and perhaps he was too sharp, too keen, for he was probably closer to the rapid pace than he needed to be. The day before the Derby, he tried to "run off" during a routine gallop and to some degree succeeded. He's still learning, still figuring things out; and perhaps he'll eventually figure out how to get the job done.
4. Golden Soul
Golden Soul trained sharply in the week leading up to the Derby, and the stretch-runner clearly benefited from the rapid pace. A late foal, he's getting better as he matures, and he could be a threat to win the Belmont, where he'll make his next start.
Departing finished third in the Louisiana Derby, a race that's starting to look stronger all the time, and since then he won the Illinois Derby. He's lightly raced and improving and, most important, fresh. He'll be an intriguing addition to the cast in Baltimore.
Mylute finished fifth in the Derby in an outstanding effort, proving he belongs with the leaders of the division. And he missed second by only 1 ¼ lengths. Perhaps it's difficult to imagine him beating Orb, but he could certainly be a player in Baltimore.
His Derby was a disaster and, quite simply, too poor to believe. He raced close to the rapid pace and faltered badly, finishing 17th while being eased in the stretch, all of which suggests he didn't handle the surface. He looked too good and trained too well to run that badly. His connections have enough confidence in him to move on to Baltimore, where he could be a threat.
Verrazano was a monumental bust in the Derby, finishing 14th. Huge and powerful, he doesn't look like a classic horse, and his Derby confirmed that impression. He raced close to the hot pace, made a move and then retreated. He's obviously extremely talented, but his talents will probably be best displayed at shorter distances, and perhaps on the turf.
Oxbow's desire to be a racehorse might be his greatest virtue. What a game performance he gave in the Derby. He was the only horse that raced close to the hot pace (45.33 for the opening half-mile and 1:09.80 for three-quarters) and still hung around for the finish. Fourth in mid-stretch, he finished sixth. With a softer pace in the Preakness, he could be a threat.
Itsmyluckyday ran like Itsmydayoff in the Derby, finishing 15th. More and more, it's starting to look like he peaked in the Holy Bull Stakes in January. His connections insist that he didn't handle the surface at Churchill, which, given the circumstances, is plausible. He'll get another shot in the Preakness.
Also receiving votes: Will Take Charge (29), Mylute (24), Overanalyze (16), Princess of Sylmar (16), Beholder (13), Dreaming of Julia (11), Noble Tune (9), Palace Malice (8), Lines of Battle (6), Java's War (4), Bellarmine (3), Frac Daddy (2), Fear The Kitten (2), Close Hatches (2), Vyjack (1), Incognito (1), Abstraction (1).
How they voted: To see how our experts voted, click here.