Shug McGaughey, the trainer for Kentucky Derby winner Orb, attributes his calm demeanor since that race to maturity.
Had he made it to the Preakness with a Triple Crown chance at a younger age, the 64-year-old insists, the scene would have been different. The kindly man in a sweater, face almost always softened in a sort of bemused wonderment, would be replaced by a high-strung, short-tempered barn general.
Orb co-owner Stuart Janney III knows McGaughey feels some pressure.
"Before the Derby, he had no color in his face," he said. "I was ready to take him right to the mortician."
He knows, too, that there's a reason McGaughey has remained unshackled by concern: Orb.
"Really, it always comes down to the horse," said Janney, a Baltimore area native and resident.
Orb was an even-money choice on the morning line, and bettors still may make him a heavier favorite to win the138th running of the mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness Saturday at Pimlico Race Course (post-time scheduled for 6:20 p.m., with NBC providing coverage starting at 4:30 p.m.). The Derby winner's reputation always balloons somewhere on the road from Louisville to here, but Orb's ascension has nearly made the rest of the field an afterthought.
McGaughey, unlike many of his ilk, is not known for the sort of idle overstating that fills the time between Triple Crown races. So when the trainer seemed awed by what he saw out of Orb this week — especially in his final breeze before leaving Belmont on Monday — handicappers everywhere took notice.
He continues to say the horse has grown at a bewildering rate. That has meaning coming out of an outfit that has rarely pushed 3-year-olds into races early in the year. Orb is training "every bit as good" as he did going into the Derby, McGaughey said.
"I'm very pleased with his appearance and everything is on go," he said.
A weak field has also contributed to the growing feeling that Orb could run away from a group that does not include the second-, third- or fourth-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby.
That's not to say it lacks intrigue. Mylute (fifth in Kentucky) and Will Take Charge (eighth) were in the running until finding trouble.
Mylute jockey Rosie Napravnik knows Pimlico better than any rider in the race, having started her career with a win in her very first race here and going on to dominate the Maryland circuit.
Napravnik said she may try to keep Mylute closer to the lead this time. In Kentucky, she lingered alongside Orb nearly 20 lengths back in the middle of the race and could not muster the same move coming around the turn.
"What I really learned about him is that his class is kind of coming out and he's really improving," she said.
Will Take Charge, meanwhile, seemed ready to follow Orb until wobbly Verrazano veered into his path. With a new rider, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, that might not be as much of a problem for the colt, who is one of trainer D. Wayne Lukas' three entries.
Oxbow also returns off of a sixth place finish in the Derby, and Titletown Five — the only horse in the field who has ever beaten Orb — is a newcomer, albeit a long-shot. Partially owned by pro football Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, Titletown Five will likely be among the lead group that dictates the pace.
Goldencents, a retreating 17th at the Derby, should also be there. Trained by Doug O'Neill, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown last year with I'll have Another, the gelding did not handle the mud at Churchill Downs well. O'Neill has been optimistic that his horse will run to previous form, but also cautious.
"When they throw in a head-scratcher, the next time, as confident as you may be, it's tempered a little bit," he said.
Departing, with four weeks rest since his Illinois Derby win, is considered the most dangerous newcomer to the race. He roamed the same Kentucky pasture as Orb after they were born at Claiborne Farm and, like Orb, he has developed well as a 3-year-old. He'd have to surprise even his trainer to be challenging at the end, though.
"Orb has found his level," Al Stall Jr. said. "Now it is a matter of how high we can go."
Talk of Orb's chances at the Triple Crown — too often un-tethered to the reality that it hasn't been done since 1978 — slowed when he drew the rail in the post-position draw. McGaughey doesn't think it matters, especially with Joel Rosario riding. No rider has been as prolific this year, and his switch from riding in Southern California to being based on the East Coast created an ideal hybrid of two distinct ways of riding at the country's top tracks.
"I don't think it's a problem," Rosario said of the No. 1 post position. "I think he'll be fine. It's a long distance."