LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Seemingly without fail each year, a horse seems to catch the eye of onlookers of morning workouts by horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby.For many years, word of mouth would reinforce the opinions of each person on the backstretch who had witnessed the gallop or workout. These days, that word of mouth quickly spreads around the world thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the like. How fast is this new worldwide word of mouth? I tweeted out a compliment about Derby starter Palace Malice's looks on the track and he Tweeted back to me ... while he was still on the track. My fingers have a hard time selecting the correct letter on my phone; I can't imagine the challenge of getting things right sans digits.While Palace Malice certainly looked good on the track this week, he was not the subject of the most powerful, sustained buzz I've ever witnessed for a Derby horse. The horse who turned heads and sent people to their smart phones to talk about what they'd seen this week is Orb.
At one point a friend of mine asked my group of four, "Do any of you like a horse besides Orb?" The answer from all four of us seemed to be "no," which is rare in a sport that typically rewards contrarians (for instance, those who see potential in the 12-1 winner others overlook).This type of buzz often can be a bit silly. After all, a horse can love the track, run his best race, and still not be talented enough to stay within a football field of a more talented winner. But Orb does not fall into that category.Orb has won all three of his starts this season, including a 23/4-length victory in the Florida Derby, each year one of the toughest prep races for the Kentucky Derby. He turned it into his own show, easily defeating Itsmyluckyday, who also will try the 11/4-mile Derby.
Yes, this is a horse who already was enjoying a top season and now, based on those morning workouts, has shown he enjoys running on the Churchill Downs surface, which has been known to trip up a talented horse or two.If you're looking for weakness in Orb's trainer, who conditions the horse daily, or Orb's jockey, you'll be searching a long time.Orb is trained by Racing Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. While McGaughey has not won a Derby, he has won most of racing's other top events. McGaughey is a patient trainer who does not like to rush horses to make the Derby on the first Saturday in May. But Orb has matured on his own and McGaughey has moved forward confident his horse is ready. McGaughey said he's never been more excited about a race.
Orb's rider is Joel Rosario, who set a record for wins at this year's prestigious Keeneland Race Course spring meeting. He continued that pace at Churchill Downs, winning five races on opening night.Orb typically comes from behind, but he has shown an ability to stay close to the early leaders if they're going slow, trying to save energy.This year's Derby does not seem to me an especially wide-open affair. Orb enters the race off three straight victories, including two wins in top stakes races at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Verrazano is undefeated in his four career starts, including wins over other Derby starters Normandy Invasion, Vyjack, and Java's War. Orb and Verrazano figure to be two of the favorites this year.Revolutionary has won three straight races, capped by a win in the Louisiana Derby. He will pick up the services of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel. Verrazano and Revolutionary are two of the five horses top trainer Todd Pletcher will send out today. They will be joined by fast-improving Arkansas Derby (grade I) winner Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.Yes, many of this year's top horses also boast top trainers and top jockeys.
Of course the bad news in picking favorites like Orb means any wagers will not return a whole lot of money, for those who choose to wager. That said, a bet on a long shot that doesn't win returns zero. For this race, I'll take the $9 or $10 payout on a $2 wager on Orb and be happy.The picks:1. Orb; 2. Verrazano; 3. Palace Malice.Former Gazette staff writer Frank Angst is now a staff writer at Blood-Horse magazine.