BALTIMORE - When you pick a speed horse in a long race, there is always potential for embarrassment. If, however, you are not right, it really does not matter how wrong.
Races are like chess games. All the moves have been made. It is just a question of determining which move is going to be the winning one, which factor is going to matter most.
I came to the conclusion that the lack of early speed in the Kentucky Derby was the critical factor. Thus, I liked Goldencents, the horse that had the best chance of controlling the pace.
There was no way for me to imagine that Palace Malice would clear the Derby field in very fast fractions, sucking the heart out of all the other speed horses and spreading out the field by 50 lengths at the finish. But that is exactly what happened. I knew Goldencents had no chance after 400 yards. That he finished 17th was not a shock.
Speed horses come with that inherent risk. And when you are so wrong about what you thought there is not much second-guessing.
Without going into all the details, I almost got very lucky. I liked a bunch of horses behind Goldencents in the superfecta. One of those horses was not Golden Soul, the eventual second-place finisher and the key to the massive payoffs in the exotic wagers. Then, when Black Onyx scratched, I needed a horse to replace him. I chose Golden Soul.
Luck, however, rarely overcomes stupid.
When I saw the fractions, I looked to the back of the pack and remembered what I wrote the day before the Derby: "If it's not Goldencents, Orb is the most likely winner."
As Orb came flying around the far turn, clearly with the momentum to run by the horses in front of him, I was wishing I had expanded my super play to include the race's best closer on top.
It is usually an easy game when the race is over.
With hindsight, it is now clear that the critical factors during Derby Week were the great workout Orb had on Monday and the incredible confidence shown by the colt's trainer Shug McGaughey, a man who is typically circumspect about everything. He could not contain his excitement. He just knew Orb was going to run a big one.
Well, Orb had another great workout Monday at Belmont Park before being vanned to Pimlico that afternoon. And Shug seems just as confident in his colt's performance for Saturday's Preakness as he was before the Derby.
Orb was 5-1 then, likely 4-5 Saturday.
I can't pick against him, even though the pace scenario could change dramatically and a colt like Goldencents could run much closer to his true ability. Orb has been unbeatable since winning one of the strongest maiden races in history back in November at Aqueduct. Peter Pan Stakes winner Freedom Child was second, Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary third.
Orb was the beneficiary of that hot pace in the Derby, but the colt also has won behind slow paces and no paces. There is absolutely no reason to think Orb won't fire.
Margins of defeat can often be misleading. Circumstances often determine results. If Orb had won the Derby in a vacuum, I could pick against him. Orb, however, won for the fifth consecutive time. I have to like him to make it six straight and be alive for the Triple Crown on June 8.
"I thought it was breathtaking," McGaughey said after Monday's workout. The colt's work, he said, "sent cold chills up my back . . . was spectacular."
I considered the trainer's confidence in Kentucky. Should have made it the centerpiece of a bet.
Orb is the safe choice. His running style nearly assures a strong effort. Orb is also now the obvious choice, which will make his price unappealing. But winning is still winning. And there is always the superfecta, but, sadly, without the bonanza opportunity the Derby always presents.
Five horses from the Derby are back in the Preakness, but that does not include those that finished second, third and fourth. Mylute (fifth), Oxbow (sixth), Will Take Charge (eighth), Itsmyluckyday (15th) and Goldencents are going to try Orb again. Oxbow was the only horse to be anywhere near the early pace and keep trying.
Sunland Derby winner Govenor Charlie and Illinois Derby winner Departing appear best of the horses new to the Triple Crown scene.
Govenor Charlie gets Bob Baffert involved after the trainer missed the Derby. The colt should be part of the pace.
Departing's trainer Al Stall is the man who sent out Blame to give Zenyatta her only defeat in the last start of a legendary 20-race career.
"He seems to be a horse going in the right direction," Stall said of Orb. "He's got all the pedigree in the world, all the connections. He's strictly the horse to beat. I have no idea whether we can beat him or not."
At this stage, I am not sure any of these trainers know if they can beat Orb, but this is horse racing where superior horses often lose for obvious reasons or no reason at all. But if Orb does lose, it won't because his trainer did not have him ready to run.
"Day in and day out, with your better horses, you don't want to run them back in 2 weeks, because they give you a lot when they run," McGaughey said. "You've got to train them a little bit to get them to run again. There's no compromise here. You've got to do it. You've just got to hope you haven't drained your horse over the winter with prep races and his training, so he can bounce out of a big race like he had on Derby Day. But I think we'll be fine."
So do I. Orb is the most consistent horse. Orb really overwhelmed the Derby field. And Orb has a trainer who is completely in the moment.
"I do a lot from watch and feel," McGaughey said after the Derby. "I'm not a vacation guy. I like to be at the barn, and that's where I'm comfortable . . . like to watch the horses train, and if I don't feel like they're doing things exactly the way I want them to do, then I basically don't run them."
In the race prior to the Derby, Shug lived those words. He had his grass star Point of Entry in against 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan. When the course came up soft, a condition Point of Entry does not like, Shug scratched the horse.
"And I also do know, because of the experience that I've had in watching, is that sometimes if you force a horse into a race and you make a mistake, it's a big mistake," McGaughey said.
The Preakness is 2 weeks after the Derby. In a perfect world, Shug would have more time between races. But this is the Triple Crown world. There is no time. But know this. If Orb was not ready, he would not be running. He is running so he is ready.